It’s to my discredit as an avid reader of history that I never knew about Joe Rantz and the United States rowing team at the 1936 Olympics. One of the most famous Games in history, Jesse Owens took home with Hitler reputedly watching from the audience and the shadow of a looming World War darkened every event. Rantz and members of the University of Washington’s rowing team who vied for the Gold that year is a story full of drama, particularly on such a global stage, and songwriter John McDonough makes great use of it.
“Shooting Star” shows off his excellent blending of everyday and poetic language. Wrapping his carefully composed lyric around an acoustic-driven arrangement, primarily reliant on guitar, is the perfect accompaniment for McDonough’s voice. His singing has particular prominence during this song without ever overshadowing the arrangement. McDonough’s smart to reinforce the song’s melody with keyboards. The songs have hooks the envy of any pop songwriter and that continues with “Love You Just For You” and the chorus especially brings the track’s emotions to life. It’s a huge plus in his favor how McDonough invokes timeless subjects like love in a personal and creative way.
Assuming the role of Rantz for the song’s lyrics might backfire. In his hands, however, McDonough brings the real man to life with plain-spoken episodic songs that hang together remarkably well. “Among the Stars” has more of the fleet-fingered acoustic fretwork defining the EP as a whole, but there’s much more going on here than elsewhere. My review won’t spoil the surprises except to say they aren’t earth-shaking, but well worth it.
The title song serves up an unexpected mix of tempos. It’s the most effective musical move on the EP, in my opinion, and the underplayed finesse driving such a decision reveals a lot about his songwriting. Any twists or turns in his music aren’t driven by self-indulgence but, instead, his desire to serve the song. The curtain comes down on the EP with the song “Point Me East” and the earthy conversational eloquence of its lyric is the final evidence of McDonough’s mastery of voice. There’s a clear-eyed understanding of human nature running through each of We’ll Answer the Call’s five songs far beyond the ken of your everyday folkie EP.
His sound has a folkie vibe and feel, without a doubt, but these songs are elastic. It isn’t hard for me to hear full-band rock arrangements, as well, hearing these songs and the instrumentation present helps strengthen such suggestiveness. I love the way he uses percussion without ever allowing it to overpower the songs, the tasteful insertion of keyboards, and his seemingly effortless facility with melody.
It’s ultimately the latter quality that will determine, as it does for all, how long and far McDonough goes. He’s traveled countless miles since beginning all these years ago in Austin, Texas, there’s many releases under his belt, and a bevy of shows in far-flung venues he cannot recall. I’d say he’s done pretty well for himself and, if We’ll Answer the Call is any indication, his journey is far from over.