Bespectacled singer/songwriter Randy Vanwarmer became one of the unlikeliest radio heroes of the late 1970s when his gentle ballad “Just When I Needed You Most” began its ascent up the Billboard chart amidst an onslaught of disco (“I Will Survive,” “Hot Stuff”) and New Wave (“Heart of Glass”). Vanwarmer’s bittersweet memory of a long-gone lover hit a nerve with listeners looking for an escape from the dance floor. Although the song would qualify him as a one-hit wonder, Vanwarmer continued to record and write songs for other artists until his death from leukemia complications in 2004 at the age of 48. The U.K.’s Edsel label continues its Bearsville Records series with four Vanwarmer albums on two single-CD releases, the first bringing together 1979’s Warmer and 1980’s Terraform, while the second combines Beat of Love (1981) with The Things That You Dream (1983). Previous CD editions of the first two albums have been commanding high prices in the secondhand market, making Edsel’s reissues very welcome, indeed.
Based on Vanwarmer’s debut Warmer, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the song title was a pun on the artist’s name. Paul Myers’ detailed liner notes reveal otherwise, that the title owed to the album’s warm MOR sound, and hence, Randy Van Wormer became Randy Vanwarmer. The artist’s style on this album isn’t unlike that of prime Dan Fogelberg or Christopher Cross, although the surging popularity of the latter artist actually led Bearsville parent Warner Brothers to concentrate less on Vanwarmer. Producer Del Newman (Cat Stevens, Elton John) added subtle textures to Vanwarmer’s delicate and confessional songs, while Ian Kimmet and Bearsville’s John Holbrook remixed the album at Warner Brothers’ and Bearsville owner Albert Grossman’s behest.
But the familiar “Just When I Needed You Most,” enlivened by John (“Welcome Back”) Sebastian’s autoharp, isn’t the only great song waiting for you here as Vanwarmer traverses a number of styles all within the adult contemporary context. Despite the number of mid-tempo, radio-ready ballads on the album, the record label initially opted for the glossy, lightly funky “Gotta Get Out of Here” as the album’s first single. With its big choral sound on the hook, it was perhaps an attempt to court the new wave audience. The falsetto chorus of “I Could Sing” has a light disco flavor very much of the time, and Vanwarmer even comes close to rocking out on “Convincing Lies,” with its up-front electric guitars. Though its title is hardly original, “Call Me” is one of the most appealing tracks here, with another strong melodic hook and vocals again recalling Christopher Cross. The subtle, twangy guitars of “Forever Loving You” presage Vanwarmer’s later work supplying artists like Alabama and The Oak Ridge Boys with hits out of Nashville.
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Vanwarmer followed Warmer with Terraform one year later, declaring the smooth sounds of his debut album as “too tame” and ignoring legendary producer Willie Mitchell’s advice to create a sophomore album that doesn’t stray too far from the first’s style and sound. Holbrook and Kimmet were again at the controls, and Vanwarmer envisioned Terraform as a kind of concept album built around a 10+-minute title suite incorporating “Falling Free,” “I’ve Got a Ticket,” “21st Century” and “Terraform.” Still, looking back from today’s vantage point, the artist didn’t stray terribly far from the template of the first album, notwithstanding that conceptual mini-song cycle. The catchy “Whatever You Decide,” which leads off the album, is catchy, adult-oriented pop, while “I Discovered Love,” “All We Have is Tonight,” and “I’m Gonna Prove It” all explore relationships from different angles. Overall, though, the sound is just a bit less subdued than on the initial album with a bit more of an eighties gloss. There’s a harder edge to “Down Like a Rock” (“I went down/Down without trace/And all I could see was the smile on her face/I fell in/Was I pushed, did I walk/Oh, when I went down/Down like a rock!”), an idiosyncratic rocker complete with burbling, watery sound effects!
Roger Powell of Utopia created the electronic percussion that gives the prog-pop space opera “Terraform” suite its unique sound. Vanwarmer offered suitably widescreen imagery and even social conscience in the “Falling Free” section: “Falling free, I see a rising star/A planet torn apart by darkness/Greed and war/We need to find a place to stand…” The “21st Century” segment is a bit more fun, utilizing a Vocoder for some lighthearted futuristic fun: “I wear something flash/People I pass come out en masse/Dressed just like me! I’m so 21st century!” One bonus track, “Stay Young,” has been added to Warmer/Terraform; the song first appeared on Pony Canyon’s Japan-only Bearsville Box.
Vanwarmer finally managed to shed the Dan Fogelberg-meets-Christopher Cross ethos of his first album entirely with the lead single off his third LP. 1981’s Beat of Love kicked off with the vaguely menacing “Suzi Found a Weapon,” a song inspired by Vanwarmer’s newfound love of Robert Palmer. (Liner note scribe Paul Myers also, accurately, notes a similarity of feeling to The Cars!) The song’s cool, modern vibe extended to most of the album, again produced by Holbrook and Kimmet, and it reached a respectable No. 55 on the U.S. Billboard chart. But on Beat of Love, the emphasis was on darker lyrics contrasted with Vanwarmer’s almost effortless melodies. “Always Night” reflects a gloomy worldview (“Oh God, the time I waste/Staring out into this empty space/Waiting up for sleep to end the day…”) as does “Frightened by the Light of Day,” but both boast irresistible melodies and the latter some shimmering guitars.
The album’s other colors are apparent, too. “Amen” is a goofy reggae spoof but immediately following it, there’s deep sensitivity on “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes,” later a No. 1 hit for The Oak Ridge Boys! Del Newman contributes the grave string arrangements on the first section of “Babel/Don’t Hide,” a blending of two very different songs that comes off like a shrunken “Terraform.” Horns enliven the party-time “Hanging Onto Heaven,” on which the singer sarcastically implores, “Let’s all go to heaven before we die,” or at least heaven in the form of hedonistic L.A.! The concept behind Beat of Love was that there was no concept other than a strong collection of songs; among the originals, he even selected one cover, (Benny) Gallagher and (Graham) Lyle’s 1971 hit for McGuinness Flint, “When I’m Dead and Gone.” Vanwarmer succeeded mightily in this “concept.”
For 1983’s The Things That You Dream, his fourth and final album on Bearsville, Vanwarmer turned to a new producer (David Kershenbaum, who was known for his work with Joe Jackson) and musicians both new (Jim Cregan, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Paulinho DaCosta) and returning (John Sebastian). Vanwarmer revisited Terraform territory with “Gonna Build Me a Rocket” (“And I’m gonna blast off to outer space”) and added more covers into the mix. John Sebastian, who had so memorably provided autoharp on “Just When I Needed You Most,” adds the instrument to Vanwarmer’s rollicking cover of Sebastian’s own “Do You Believe in Magic” as well as to “Hester’s Song.” David Leigh Byron’s “Shadows of the Night” also gets a bright Vanwarmer power-pop treatment not too long after Pat Benatar had scored a rock hit with the song. Adam Mitchell wrote the California soul of “I’m Still in Love.” There aren’t as many standouts on this album, but Vanwarmer finally seems comfortable with his own voice, not stretching too far stylistically and simply making “goodtime music” as John Sebastian might have said.
Warmer/Terraform and Beat of Love/The Things That You Dream both have been mastered by Peter Rynston and feature liner notes by Paul Myers plus lyrics in colorful, thick booklets. If you’ve enjoyed “Just When I Needed You Most,” chances are you might need to add these four long-neglected albums on two CDs to your collection.
Both Randy Vanwarmer titles are available beginning today from Edsel!