The subject of Joe Rantz and the 1936 Washington Huskies rowing team who represented the United States and competed for the Gold at that year’s Olympic games isn’t as well-known as other American triumphs that year. It’s the same Olympic games, held in Berlin, where Jesse Owens outdistanced Germany’s finest runners before a stunned audience including the reportedly annoyed Adolf Hitler.
Chicago-based singer/songwriter John McDonough hasn’t forgotten Rantz and his teammates, however. His latest release, an EP entitled We’ll Answer the Call, attempts to document Rantz’s story in five songs and manages the task despite long odds and without burying listeners in a lyrical avalanche. Virtually all of us understand the importance of brevity in storytelling and McDonough’s accomplishment in marrying traditional songwriting with this story deserves praise.
He opens the EP with “Shooting Star”. It is one of the EP’s most affecting moments, undoubtedly among its darkest, as it recounts some of the adversities Rantz faced growing up. There isn’t a wide array of instruments driving McDonough’s music, nor does there need to be. Acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards, and occasional strings are his aural ingredients, excluding voice, and the first two are especially prominent during this track.
His skill in writing and realizing strong choruses is an important part of McDonough’s presentation. “Shooting Star” has one of the EP’s best refrains and he communicates its unvarnished wisdom. Many listeners will be taken in, as well, by the song’s imagery and it remains one of the EP’s mainstay strengths moving forward.
The mood shifts gears for the second cut. “Love You Just For You” finds Rantz at a particular turn in his life when he discovers love and he measures the song’s ebullient tilt just right. The song’s timeless sentiments never sound trite and the backing vocals establish a loose dialogue with McDonough’s voice that helps further the performance. Another memorable chorus hits with the track “Among the Stars” and other key musical touches help set this number apart from the pack.
The guitar and organ, however, provide the song’s musical flair. They are understated, of course, as McDonough is far too canny to overplay his hand. The EP’s title song shares the same trait. “We’ll Answer the Call” doesn’t settle for a single tempo and the movement into its upbeat chorus passes listeners without a hiccup. He deserves your kudos, as well, for holding back from any oversized finale – you can hear the victory in this song, but it never lands too heavy.
“Point Me East” closes the EP in the same way falling leaves waft slowly to the ground. It’s a song that finds Rantz looking back from the perspective of many years after the Berlin triumph. His point of view is an old man’s but that doesn’t mean weak, faded, or rueful. The shining will in the heart of the song, the willingness to remain true to himself, makes this a near perfect closer. John McDonough’s We’ll Answer the Call is a concise and impactful listening experience well worth seeking out.