Nelson Riddle
Love Tide






Make no mistake by the look of things in terms of the front cover. Nelson Riddle's (1921–1985) Love Tide isn't necessarily one of those schmaltzy love-themed romance albums, although the majority of the 12 tunes – two of them unique compositions by Riddle – reside undoubtedly in that spectrum. Released in 1961 on Capitol Records, the liner notes call this album the successor to Sea Of Dreams (1958) with a clear-cut continuation of his "musical seascapes". That's the reason why both albums were coupled on a recent 2CD-release. However, I disagree with that notion. Riddle may have planned to come back to the concept of Sea Of Dreams, but Love Tide is far from being aquatic. The orchestra strings are often surprisingly melodramatic and baneful, and sound nothing like their lusher, loftier brethren of the former album which should teach cheeky naysayers a lesson who believe all Easy Listening works sound alike.


The most glaring example for the different soundscapes between both albums are the instruments that are neglected on the first work, but added in the latter: vibraphones, harps, pianos and bongos altogether lessen the romantic notions in Love Tide, but cannot leave an impact once the melodrama and yearning are aurally displayed via the many violin strings. Why should Exotica fans investigate? Because Nelson Riddle presents at least three dedicated Exotica classics on this LP, and depending on your definition of the genre, you might well add another two tunes. And since Riddle occasionally breaks the overarching concept that is thrown at him by the marketing people at Capitol, you should not expect an adamant frame that solely focuses on the loving couple of the front cover, let alone the liquedous setting. That's actually great, for it is these formula-expanding moments where the album starts to get interesting for Exotica followers, regardless of whether they are fans of Nelson Riddle or not.

Freed from any romantic kitsch that is depicted on the front artwork,
Richard Rodger's and Oscar Hammerstein II's Bali Ha'i is the introductory track to Nelson Riddle's aforementioned seascapes. It is a particularly exotic rendition which one would not have guessed from the shape of things. Sure enough do saccharine Hollywood strings play the main melody, but it is the droning djembe-driven percussion and harp-fueled backings that are the actual hidden stars of the arrangement. Plinking triangles are a great counterpart to the almost abyssal contrabass strings which are interwoven every so often. Riddle's symphonic interpretation takes away the loftiness of this piece due to the greatly balanced interplay between gloomy strings and ethereal counterparts; especially the end phase comprises of violins of pure warmth with twinkling vibraphone sparks. Again, Bali Ha'i is less romantic than it is exotic. It is not enchanting, though, as the darker parts are allotted throughout the runtime of over three minutes, a bold move by Easy Listening terms.


The following Ill Wind, originally composed in 1934 by Harold Arlen, merges these darker tones with enigmatic harp spirals, frosty vibraphone droplets and heavily wafting strings before the slow double bass-backed groove is established. If it weren't for the incessant occurrence of the coruscant glints, the nostalgic lamento would be much heavier. The strings are much more on the forefront, stripped off their exotic backup and are again shuttling between celestial lightness and heavy waves of melodrama. It is not exactly my cup of tea, but the vibraphones are always a splendid inclusion and definitely much needed here for counterbalancing reasons. 

Brooks Bowman's 1936 classic East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon) is nurtured by Riddle's conducted polyphonous pizzicato strings and entranced vibraphone glints that glow like sun rays on the water, Till The End Of Time by Ted Mossman and Buddy Kaye is yet another track whose romance factor is augmented by a concoction of sunset-red orchestra strings and admixed devices that lessen the approach, for example golden-shimmering harps and complemental acoustic guitars. It becomes clear from this point that Nelson Riddle is revving up the romantic notions. The strings are thicker, more vibrant and saturated than before, the exotic percussion wanes and the vibraphones, though still sparkling, cannot resurrect the adventurous easy going approach that was hidden in the opener Bali Ha'i. There's nothing wrong with this overarching approach, for the cover and the title say it all.


And yet there's hope for Exotica fans, oh yes! Ever heard of Duke Ellington's Caravan? Sure you do, and boy, does Nelson Riddle make a proper U-turn. Unleashing rapid-firing bongo-fueled rhythm patterns next to spectral sky-high strings and slightly warmer and darker counterparts, the chorus is especially cinematic and wide in its depicted panorama. Properly jazzy double bass backings, multicolored harp cascades and several rhythmic shifts make this an interpretation that is as exciting as it is out of place: it is danger-evoking, far away from any water source and has zero romance in it. A song for the boys among Riddle's listeners and a fulminant hit. And while Riddle is in Exotica realms, why not add Harry Owens' 1934 opus Sweet Leilani as the finishing tune of side A? Sure enough does the romance re-enter the scenery, but so does a deliciously hollow bongo beat that accompanies the eminently saccharine violin strings of heaven. No vibraphones or obvious harps, just piles of orchestra strings and bongos. Minimalism camouflaged via opulence.

Take Me In Your Arms – the title says it all, as Nelson Riddle puts the focus back to amorous lands. Originally written by Mitchell Parish and Fred Markush, Riddle surprises with overly melodramatic, yearning and dusky string settings that are neither romantic nor exotic, but all the more doleful. Despite this grey scenery, he is keen enough to inject a welcome dose of mellow marimbas and decisively Latin piano sequences in darker tone regions. It is a disappointing arrangement – given the theme of AmbientExotica – that cannot be rescued by the marimba infusion. It is the heavyweight of the album. As if the heart-aching theme was too huge, the following Solitude opens with wondrous harp spirals that continue to keep their omnipresence. Originally written by Duke Ellington in 1934, Riddle does everything right here: twinkling vibraphone glints, Far Eastern two-note piano sprinkles and much dreamier, less nostalgic orchestra strings shimmer majestically. The jazzy but laid back piano melody in the last third works well in this phantasmagoric atmosphere. Thumbs up!


Next on the agenda is Santana, and it is written by none other than Nelson Riddle himself. Thankfully, it breaks the formula again, as it is definitely Mediterranean in style, a Bolero on speed if you will, with piercing and sizzling-hot strings, a castanet-interspersed tambourin percussion and – gasp! – that certain Surf Rock build-up thanks to its standout rhythm. There are obviously no electric guitars involved, but that certain rhythm is still commonplace in today's Rockabilly and Dark Exotica songs. Nelson Riddle, you devil, you!

Honeysuckle Rose, written in 1928 by Fats Waller, is another surprise, thanks in large parts to its crystalline brightness: an eight-note theme on both the guitar and scintillating vibes is introduced and shortly thereafter meshed with lavish orchestra strings. These are once more much lighter and loftier than at the beginning of side B. They literally wash over the listener and make this an Easy Listening hymn par excellence. It is what the conductor does best, and he shows it here in great clarity. The penultimate Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me is the newest inclusion on the LP, having been written in 1952 by Harry Noble. The Lounge factor is unexpectedly high due to a soft double bass grove, gently shaken maracas and mystically trembling vibraphone notes whose sustain is allowed to resonate in the distance since this quiet opening passage is perfectly suitable for such an occasion. But even once the song is properly running, there are many low-profile phases with not much else than the percussive aorta, so both the vibes and the punchy harp twangs continue to shine and round off a composition that would otherwise have been a clichéd romantic ballad.


The final offering is the eponymous Love Tide, and is the second original Nelson Riddle tune. A deep Balearic guitar and glistening vibes mesh with the possibly catchiest melody that is tremendously cinematic and altered many times; sometimes the motif is played in ethereal ways, then there are moments where its appearance is almost ghostly and gelid. The careful build-up with lots of fissures and quiescent passages make this a very great tune. Soft bongos are included, and while this song is not exotic at all, its memorable melodies, the interchanging pattern of rose-tinted textures with gloomy passages is a great end to an exotic romance album.

Love Tide is said to be the successor of Sea Of Dreams according to the liner notes, but I cannot sense the reason for this remark, as it is much heavier and occasionally downright spectral in the depiction of its mood. Likewise is the instrumental pool opened in direct contrast, with piano chords, marimba inclusions and most importantly bongo beats scattered all over Love Tide. In the end, Nelson Riddle's album is firmly rooted in romantic realms rather than exotic beaches, but Bali Ha'i, Caravan and his own Santana broaden the concept and inject exotic traits and attributes. Caravan is the obvious show-stopper for Exotica fans: it's fast-paced, exciting and bongo-laden, but even the djembe groove of Bali Ha'i proves to be a good counterpart to the ubiquitous use of the symphonic instruments.


If you are missing the brass sections and still long for an exotic angle with lots of vibraphones, go for Nelson Riddle's Witchcraft! of 1958, as it is much more swinging, but surprises with freely flowing improvisations on the majority of the depicted material. And surprisingly enough does Witchcraft! feature much more liquid and wet compositions than the supposed seascapes of Love Tide. Since it is available as a digital download version on iTunes, Amazon and cohorts, it is best to pre-listen to the material, especially so the heavier pieces. You will understand what I mean when I talk about the gloominess and even ghostly qualities of the strings. Plus if you are only fond of the clear-cut Exotica classics, you can cherry-pick them as well. As stated above, Caravan is the obvious choice in this regard. All in all, Love Tide is not as romantic as one might think. Then again, it is not overly exotic and at times even eerie due to its all too heavy strings. But it is mostly playful, and since the strings are usually lush and mellow, it remains a treat to Easy Listening fans. 


Exotica Review 146: Nelson Riddle – Love Tide (1961). Originally published on Nov. 17, 2012 at