Straight Faced Fighters

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If ever a band's name put the wrong impression of their music across, it was that of Britain's Widowmaker, whose diversified blend of '70s rock rarely sounded vicious enough to do such an intimidating moniker justice (unlike the American bunch led by Twisted Sister screamer Dee Snider in the '90s -- they fit the bill). The Straight Faced Fighters anthology is the ultimate proof, collecting virtually every song issued by the troubled almost-supergroup during their altogether brief, two album, two year ride. Disc one starts off reasonably enough with their eponymous debut from 1976, but surreptitiously sneaks in a non-album track, the bluesy rocker "Such a Shame" -- ahead of the record's original, limp-wristed excuse for an opener, "Pin a Rose on Me," which waffled on with post-hippie sentimentality over a countrified acoustic guitar base. This odd combination is replicated throughout the LP, with both improved ("Straight Faced Fighter," the gospel-flavored "Shine a Light on Me"), and impoverished results ("Leave the Kids Alone," the unbearably insipid flower-power muck-about "Got a Dream"); but Widowmaker manage to keep nap-time at bay with another electrified blues ("Ain't Telling You Nothing"), a few simple but energetic hard rockers ("On the Road," the standout "Running Free"), and a meticulously shambolic stab at Faces-like barroom decadence called "When I Met You." Disc two is split between six rare recordings of the band performing live at London's Paris Theater in 1976, and six studio cuts chosen from Widowmaker's second and final album, 1977's Too Late to Cry. The former (despite occasional interruptions from almost irritatingly convivial MC Bob Harris) finally make good on the unfulfilled threat of Widowmaker's forbidding name via spunked up renditions of their weaker studio versions. Also on hand is an interestingly morbid blues ballad, "El Doomo," from singer Steve Ellis' earlier solo band, and a very old number, the Free-like "Come on Up," recovered from guitarist Ariel Bender's late-'60s band, Art. As for the rest of the material on disc two, it features Ellis' interchangeable replacement, John Butler, and supplies additional examples of Widowmaker's terminal identity crisis. As well as the standard issue blues rockers like the title cut, "Sign the Papers," "Pushing and Pulling," and the surprisingly good "Something I Can Do Without," there's a country-rock ballad, "Here Comes the Queen," and a curious commingling of muscular hard rock and Caribbean sounds -- including a little reggae -- in "The Hustler," which makes it sound like a pale imitation of Led Zeppelin's "D'yer Mak'er." Just why that second album's remaining three tracks were left off what could have been a comprehensive collection (were they just that lousy?) remains a mystery, but considering Widowmaker's limited success and largely forgotten existence, maybe Straight Faced Fighters is already a more than generous collection than most remaining fans could ever have hoped for.

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