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February 09, 2006

Rounding up the loose sheep

OK, time for a bit of a catch up. It's not all melodeons, I promise; if melodeons are tedious, then skip halfway down the page.

I realise I haven't written much about the melodeon, largely because when I think about it, I tend then to go and play it. Nicking a joke from Private Eye, it's brilliant! You can take it with you everywhere and it plays thousands of different tunes! Though at the moment it seems to be rather better at playing ditty little nursery rhymes than it does at, eg, the Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Luckily, if you practice specific tunes until you can get a AA* on them, you begin to unlock more tunes. More worryingly, you seem to also unlock more melodeons. I now have two, and plan to get a third. And Steven is making worrying perhaps-I-should-get-a-melodeon noises too. This is known as MAD, or Melodeon Acquisitive Disorder.

My two are both second-hand two-row Castagnaris; a G/C Roma and a D/G Studio. I bought the latter because all English teaching is done (pretty much) on D/G, and I'm off to Melodeons and More next month. The Studio is a no-frills Castagnari starter instrument with only 19 treble buttons -- much less smart than the current Studio. The Roma was heavily modified and tweaked by Castagnari to suit its former owner and is probably pretty much unique now. The Roma is a much better sounding instrument, and not merely because it is posher. D/G melodeons are squeaky through much of their range, so morris tunes congregate around the bottom keys in a way that's incredibly obvious once you know it's there.

I'm mostly learning by thinking of tunes and seeing if I can play them, but I'm also downloading tunes in the very wonderful abc format and playing them using the equally wonderful BarFly. It's difficult to overstate how cool this is; abc tunes are text files which are so cleverly and intuitively designed that with a very little practice you can read the tunes right off the page. Barfly takes a single text file with a list of these tunes (for example the files of Lewes Favourites), and turns it into a complete songbook with staff notation, lyrics, and midi-style playback.

Apart from that I'm working with the first of the amazingly difficult John Kirkpatrick videos, and playing along to Radio 2's rather triff virtual session. And yes, I'm pretty much stuck on everything.

Like everyone else, I giggled all the way through The IT Crowd. And I've lost count of the number of people who've told me I should be watching The Thick of It. But can I find a torrent?

I've never been much of a fan of music DVDs, though I've acquired a few over the years. But now that iTunes and the iPod (though not mine) support videos, I quite like storing music videos with the rest of my music. Handbrake is a freeware one-step video conversion tool, and Dive Into Mark has a very straightforward tutorial. So now I have all the songs from the Oysterband's 25th anniversary gig in my iTunes collection. I actually blogged the set list for that one; Angels of the River, Hal-An-Tow, Dark Eyed Sailor, By Northern Light, Tumbledown, and We Could Leave Right Now were played but didn't make it onto the DVD. Ah well.

I also adore my Nintendo DS, and in particular Metroid Prime Pinball (which hasn't been released in the UK but which is readily available from importers). This game was released to 'low expectations', being a pinball tie-in to the Metroid series, where the main character can turn herself into a powerball. It defies those expectations. The physics are good, the board is static (scrolling boards are the worst of many video pinball sins) the game uses the DS touch screen very effectively for nudge, and there's rather wimpy force feedback that adds to the sense of playing a physical game.

Although there are many non-pinball elements to the game (various different aliens to shoot with balls or bullets, a 'wall jump', rain, your ball can lose health, and so on), they all seem to fall reasonably naturally from the pinball mechanics. I've played many, many video pinballs over the years, and this does a very good job of making it feel like you've got a pinball machine in your pocket. It is not as realistic as the Pro Pinball series, but I think it is better than any other video pinball I've played. I think the trick is that the ball never does anything stupid; yes, there are aliens wandering across the table, but you just hit them with the ball as if they were moving drop targets.

It is slightly easy for me (and I am only moderately good at pinball); and tellingly, on 'expert' mode there are fewer extra balls and harder video segments, but the actual pinball mechanics are no harder. I would have preferred if the shots had been a little harder to make, the board had been faster, and the slope a little greater so that untidy shots didn't go round ramps. The board is designed with very few dangerous shots, too; even when you miss things it tends to send the ball back to the flippers.

Nevertheless, the game is well-designed; you collect 'artifacts' on 2 starting tables; once you've gone through several modes you can visit more worlds to get the last two artifacts from bosses. Then there's an 'artifact temple' where you slot the 12 artifacts into 12 holes to cash in for the endgame; more bigger bosses. Weirdly, I've never been much of a fan of videogame bosses, but the concept works really well in pinball, which always was about setting up a difficult sequence of moves to deliver a particular outcome. Once you've done all that, you start again only harder. And there's an online high score table, and I even managed to get onto it very briefly.

I'd better mention the fabulous Richard Thompson Box Set from Free Reed. 99 tracks over six CDs, together with a lengthy book and James Adie's Vincent catalogue. Many delights here; most tracks are rarities but there was clearly a cornucopia to select from. It's a mix of unusual versions of well-known songs, songs not recorded elsewhere, covers of other people's songs (including "Ca Plane Pour Moi", an interesting choice to represent punk as part of 1000 years of popular music), other people's covers of his songs, and so on. It's great; and at about 50p a track, cheaper than iTunes.

Plastic Bertrand, meanwhile, demonstrates the level of the bar for famous Belgians; having been a one-hit wonder more than 25 years ago is enough to do.

Posted by Alison Scott at February 9, 2006 01:09 PM


I've lost count of the number of people who've told me I should be watching The Thick of It

And if you didn't you've now missed it; the last in the series (of six) was screened on Monday.

Posted by: the_gardener at February 10, 2006 10:55 AM

UKNova has The Thick Of It series 1 & 2 for download. If you keep refreshing the signup page you might be lucky enough to get in.

Posted by: Ed at February 22, 2006 08:06 PM

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