From fronting the glitter-snot stomp of the New York Dolls, the back-to-rock ’n’ roll basics of his brilliant mid-’70s solo band, through his metamorphoses into the Louie Prima-humored lounge-swing of his alter-ego Buster Poindexter, Johansen has always proffered his own bigger-than-life personality atop myriad musical styles. As diverse as these styles first appear, they all connect back to one place: music with a hell of a lot passion.
On this 2002 outing — his second with the Harry Smiths band (named after the famed American folk anthologist ) — Johansen strips classics such as Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and Furry Lewis’ “Kassie Jones” down to skin and bones and delivers them in his patented, big-lunged, cigarette-damaged gruff. Shaker, which is basically a tribute to American blues greats, is both heartfelt and earnest. That’s not to say that hard-nosed blues ain’t a foreign path for Johansen; rather, the blues has always been a cornerstone in his muse, reaching back to when the Dolls trash-rocked Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Ya Start Me Talking” and Bo Diddley’s “Pills,” among others.
Helping to preserve the sonic backcloth on Shaker — making it breathe in a more organic, living way — is the charming and haunting underproduction of the disc, which was recorded at St. Peter’s Church in NYC.
Musically, Shaker is certainly better than your average blues bar band, but Johansen and his boys don’t really take the genre into any new or unfounded territory. The constant sweeping guitar and train-rattle drum rhythms tend to make the tunes too similar-sounding at times, but they also help to keep everything on track. Ironic as he may have been wearing varied musical hats, there is clearly no irony in Johansen’s approach this time around. (Though, at times, his vocals can sometimes come off like Will Sasso’s Randy Newman impersonation on “Mad TV.”)
Shaker may not do much for the hardcore blues purists, but it should go lengths to open the ears of diehard Johansen fans to the spirit of the deep blues. In the end, that is the most noble purpose this album serves.
E-mail Ricky Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.