John McDonough Releases New EP

There are familiar strands in John McDonough’s musical journey, but there are other threads running through his story that are all his own. Fixating on the true story of Joe Rantz and the Washington Huskies rowing team’s appearance at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 as the subject for a song collection wasn’t on McDonough’s bingo card when he started writing music.

It’s a reflection of the man behind the material. McDonough lived, worked, and played music in Austin, Texas, and beyond for twenty-five years before relocating to Chicago in 2020. Giving up Austin for the Windy City is another major upheaval in his life’s second act after McDonough chose to bet on himself ten years ago and devote himself to music alone. McDonough’s songs reveal a human being profoundly interested in what makes us human and the forces that prod us to do our best.

“Shooting Star” proves for listeners that greatness sometimes emerges from unlikely circumstances. McDonough opens the EP with a close look at how he envisions Rantz’s early years and the struggle for asserting identity depicted in the lyrics, the melody, and a considered yet deeply emotive McDonough vocal vividly brings Rantz’s world to life for listeners. “Love You Just for You” has Rantz in the throes of emotion and the chorus is especially standout. These songs, without exception, revolve around the core tandem of McDonough’s voice and acoustic guitar, but McDonough fills the arrangements out with a judicious amount of supporting instrumentation.

“Among the Stars” is rich with specific physical imagery that sets it apart. The melodies of the song, however, give McDonough the ideal vehicle for exploiting its promise to the fullest and he does so with intelligence and feeling side by side. The chorus, an across-the-board strength for McDonough, stands tall among the EP’s peaks. “We’ll Answer the Call” starts off a little tricky. McDonough feints towards a more pastoral traditional folk song feel before kicking it into another speed for the song’s chorus. It doesn’t achieve the same level of instrumental nuance we hear in the preceding track, but it offers listeners a rewarding ride.

He embraces a full-on elegiac ending with “Point Me East”. It has Rantz near the end of his life and the first person point of view underpinning McDonough’s lyrics arguably reaches its zenith. The construction of this album is a big reason for its success as it’s clear that McDonough exercised great care with its build. It may seem obvious, but the inevitability of examining someone’s life from their youth through the end gives the story a sweep listeners/readers/viewers will always respond too when done well.

It’s done well. He’s scored another creative triumph of his own with We’ll Answer the Call, the latest in a decade-long run that’s seen five releases and counting, and there’s no sign of slowing down. It’s easy to believe a big reason for that is that John McDonough’s songwriting muse remains tethered to earth and full of the flesh and blood struggles that mark our lives and often shadow our greatest triumphs and failures.

Michael Rand

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