james debate
james debate

Saturday, 29 December 2012

debbies 2012
It is that most pivotal time of year again, the moment where the entire story of the twelve months gone by is laid bare and scrutinised. No film, song, restaurant or significant event is safe from the all-seeing eye of The Ephemeric and our esteemed panel of judges (i.e. me).

Initially conceived as a way to slag off people I don't like, these awards have since grown into a ceremony greater than the Grammies, Emmies and Latin Grammies combined.

So happy holidays you magnificent bastards, and without further ado here are the:


2012 Debbie Awards

Cinema & TV

1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year 
Winner: Parks and Recreation 
Runner Up: Homeland

parks and recreation








Parks and Recreation comes from the creators of The Office (US Version of course). Filmed in a familiar mockumentary style and blessed with the same calibre of off-beat humour and larger-than-life characters, Parks and Recreation keeps getting better and better with each season. Now in its fifth season, it's the funniest show on TV and one on which no one should miss out. Don't let the five seasons of catching up put you off, it's worth it.

Homeland comes in second. Having taken the world by storm with its excellent debut season, the second has duly continued its fine form and ingrained itself upon the essential TV mindset of western audiences.


2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year 
Winner: The Newsroom

the newsroom aaron sorkin








A great cast including Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterstone, created by the near infallible Aaron Sorkin, and centred around a particularly poignant issue of our time; The Newsroom was a show with the potential for true greatness. While such a political show was always liable to divide audiences, there is no denying the entertainment value and quality of production. The Newsroom is a fine show, and here to stay.


3. The Debbie for Film of the Year 
Winner: Looper
Runner Up: Les Miserables

looper








With the potential exception of Lincoln, which unfortunately The Ephemeric has yet to see, this year's competitive Oscar field just goes to show what a medicore year for film it is. So it is with little hesitation that we award this most prestigious of Debbies to Looper, the breakthrough hit from art-house director Rian Johnson, starring the considerable talents of Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Looper is that rare blend of intelligent science fiction that actually works, and for that reason it takes this year's Debbie for best film.

While certainly not the best film of the year, arguably the most enjoyable was the powerful, ambitious, and ultimately flawed Les Miserables. The long awaited musical adaption shines through its stellar cast, but muddies proceedings with uncertain directing and inconsistent pacing. Despite this, any fan of the musical is sure to be giddy throughout.

Music & Theatre


4. The Debbie for Best Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: Gatz 
Runner Up: The Master and Margarita

gatz noel coward theatre








By contrast, this was an excellent year for theatre in London. After much deliberation, and with great difficulty, The Ephemeric has chosen this year's winner of the coveted Debbie as Gatz. A common criticism of Great Gatsby adaptions is that the material loses much of what makes the novel so special without the full language of the book. This eight hour production solves that problem by presenting the entire novel in play form. Honestly the most fun we've had at the theatre in a long time.

The Barbican's production of off the wall Bulgakov novel Master and Margarita takes a very close runner up slot, and in any other year could have won the big prize. Fun, frenetic and unforgettable, this show is returning in January, so do yourselves a favour and snap up tickets if you can. You'll thank us later.


5. The Debbie for Worst Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: In the Republic of Happiness 

in the republic of happiness royal court








If there's any Debbie that has truly been earned this year, it's this one. In the Republic of Happiness has the dubious honour of being the first and only play that The Ephemeric has ever wanted to walk out of in twenty five years of ardent theatre-going. If you have tickets already burn them, you'll have more fun smoking them. This play is the absolute worst kind of pretentious, and by that I don't mean overly complex, I mean it's mind numbingly brainless, lowest common denominator crap, and yet its passed off as some kind of high art. Unremittingly tedious and unfunny, with occasional profanities and songs awkwardly thrown in, because apparently that makes things funny. I've never seen anything like it, but everyone with an aisle seat left the theatre before an hour was up. It's a good thing there was no intermission or else it would have been empty before the second act.



6. The Debbie for Album of the Year 
Winner: Home Again - Michael Kiwanuka
Runner Up: Gossamer - Passion Pit

home again michael kiwanuka








The album of the year is, ironically enough, an album that The Ephemeric in its limited wisdom neglected to include (by a whisker) in its preview of most highly anticipated albums for 2012.  Soulful and understated, Kiwanuka's brand of acoustic rock is as good a record as any that has been recorded for years. The Ephemeric has no hesitation in repeatedly admitting its mistake and naming Home Again the debut album from Michael Kiwanuka as the best album of the year.

The runner up prize goes to Gossamer by Passion Pit. A new Passion pit album is always a cause for celebration, and the follow up to their 2009 debut lives up to lofty expectations. A more elegant effort that nevertheless manages to capture the same highs and lows of pure mania, Gossamer is an experience in itself


7. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year 
Winner: Home Again - Michael Kiwanuka

home again michael kiwanuka








It's the album of the year, it's a debut album. Naturally Michael Kiwanuka's album Home Again will also take the Debbie for the best debut album. Home Again is the first album to take both Debbies since Passion Pit's debut album Manners back in 2009.


8. The Debbie for Song of the Year 
Winner: It's Not My Fault I'm Happy - Passion Pit
Runner Up: Troubleman - Electric Guest

it's not my fault i'm happy gossamer passion pit








It was a difficult year for picking individual stand-out songs, but the eventual winner was Passion Pit doing what they do best. While mainly known for their infectious concoction of distilled "happy", their finest tracks have always been of the deep, anthemic variety. It's Not My Fault I'm Happy is truly an epic; touchingly lyriced, boldly melodic verses, and a grand, sweeping chorus.

For the second prize we've selected one of the more understated options. The eight minute long Troubleman forms the centrepiece of Danger Mouse's newest project Electric Guest. As smooth as a good scotch, and as playful as a bad one, it is wonderful.

Videogames & Technology

9. The Debbie for Greatest Technological Innovation of the Year 
Winner: Curiosity Mars Rover

mars curiosity rover








It's been a big year for scientific milestones, with various bosons and things traveling faster than the speed of light. But for sheer audacity, romanticism and "hell yeah we did that" factor The Ephemeric has to give this award to the Mars Curiosity Rover. From its unorthodox (read: insane) method of entry, to the pure fact that we fired a fully equipped laboratory the size of a hummer from here to another planet in one piece, to the wealth of data and photos its beaming back, Curiosity has reignited the public's love for exploration more than anything in recent decades.


10. The Debbie for Lamest Technological Innovation of the Year 
Winner: Apple Maps

apple maps








At some point, Apple decided that it was a good idea to dump YouTube and Google Maps from their default apps. A quick google search (ironic) will reveal many purported reasons for this move, but whatever the rationale the end result is that iPhones now ship with Apple's own replacement, Apple Maps. Needless to say Google weren't complaining when the resulting debacle sent users over to their android platform, and they still aren't complaining now that their re-released Google Maps and YouTube apps are top selling apps on the iTunes store. Generally not a good moment for Apple.


11. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year 
Winner: Mass Effect 3 
Runners up: Dishonored

mass effect 3








A controversial choice, but aside from the disastrous ending Mass Effect 3 was for the most part a great success. Mass Effect 3 takes the cinematic and narrative elements that made the first two games a success to a whole new level of excellent production, and adds on an addictive and rewarding multiplayer mode. Nearly perfect, shame about the ending.

Close behind is the surprise package of the year, Dishonored. A bold new IP in a visually striking world and some of the most finely honed stealth gameplay ever seen. A franchise is born.

Sports

12. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Lionel Messi

leo messi








Lionel Messi, retains his trophy, frankly not in the same category as the rest of us mere mortals when it comes to footballing ability. For this reason I have decided that picking a runner up would bely the gulf in class between him and the rest. Also I didn't even bother changing this blurb or picture from last year's awards.  


13. The Debbie for Football Match of the Year 
Winner: Champions League Final 2012- Bayern Munich v Chelsea

chelsea champions of europe








Football is a game of skill, but no one denies the role that fortune has to play. Sometimes though something happens that's so completely improbable, so shocking in its defiance of logic and chance, that it's honestly hard to believe it actually happened. Chelsea's victory in the Champions League final was one of these moments. Unlikely equalisers, statistically impossible penalty saves, ironies upon ironies, and that's not even taking into consideration the incredible circumstances in the earlier rounds of the competition. Truly one of those surreal moments that transcends football fandom.


Social

14. The Debbie for Party of the Year 
Winner: James' Birthday party at Strawberry Moons

birthday party strawberry moons








Biased? Perhaps. But once upon a time there was an epic birthday party, there was mingling of friends both old and new, and The Ephemeric himself looked dapper in his new waistcoat. Drinks were spilled.


15. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: Viajante
Runner Up: Ledbury

viajante london








A year of tough decisions for this culinary Debbie, ultimately coming down to two Restaurants that can count themselves among the very best in the world. This year's prize goes to the newcomer Viajante, which opened this past year. Blind tastings, perfect pairings and unique combinations make each and every dish sublime. Calling it a true carnival of food does not even do justice to this unforgettable experience.

Close behind and in a similar vein comes the officially top rated restaurant in London, Ledbury. The food is as fine as it comes, and the service among the warmest in town. In every aspect, Ledbury is at least a match for Viajante, but loses out on two counts: invention and festive atmosphere.


16. The Debbie for Nightclub of the Year 
Winner: Cirque du Soir

cirque du soir london








London is celebrated for its club scene, and the standout from this year's crop is Mayfair's Cirque du Soir. Cirque lives up to its name by turning the standard dance club fare into a circus/carnival extravaganza. Costumed dancers, face painters, games, giant popcorn vending machines and all sorts of other craziness create one of the most unique night spots in London.



17. The Debbie for Mixologist of the Year 
Winner: Alessandro Palazzi

alessandro palazzi duke bar








The Duke's Bar owner Alessandro is famous across London for making Ian Fleming's drinks, and in particular his flair for unique martinis turn heads. Whether he's making his signature Fleming 89 or whipping up some original creation on the spot, there's no finer cocktail around.


Travel & Adventure

18. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: Venice, Italy

venice italy








This year's destination of choice is Venice, Italy. Forget Paris, Venice is the city of romance, with beauty that is absolutely unparalleled, and character that will win over the harshest skeptic. Venice is one of the most magical places on Earth, and if you've never been before do yourself a favour and set aside a week next summer.


19. The Debbie for Wine of the Year 
Winner: Tignanello 2001

tignanello 2001








Tignanello is certainly one of the more well known wine producers, and the most famous of the Antinori vineyards. In particular though one considers the 2001 vintage, known for being one of the great years for wine in the region. Elegant, silky and with a deep crimson colour, this wine is irresistable.


20. The Debbie for Champagne of the Year 
Winner: Champagne Mailly L'Air 

champagne mailly l'air








For the second year running The Ephemeric awards its best champagne Debbie to L'Air. Champagne Mailly's latest Grand Cru continues the "four elements" theme, this year bringing air to the table, and it might just be their best yet. This delicious 2005 vintage is rich, fruity and irresistibly smooth.



Well there you have it, another great year, and here's to the next one being even better!






Sunday, 16 December 2012


Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by William Nicholson, Herbert Kretzmer
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne
Running time 160 minutes


les miserables 2012 hooper hathaway

Tom Hooper hasn't wasted any time following his breakout hit The King's Speech. Instead of retiring on his bed of money and accolades, the Oscar winning director has chosen to jump straight into his most ambitious project yet. While this is hardly the first time that celebrated Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables has been adapted for the big screen (most recently in a 1998 version starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush), never before has anyone tackled the stage musical itself.

Musicals are often difficult to adapt to film owing to the contrasting sensibilities of the different media. This is even more the case with Les Misérables' sprawling, epic narrative and its tendency towards melodrama. It's a tough ask for any director, let alone one whose career has largely been built around a single movie. Fortunately while the production of this film is far from flawless, there is still plenty for long time fans of Les Misérables and of musicals in general to celebrate.

Without wasting too much time on plot details with which most people are probably at least a little bit familiar, Les Misérables tells the redemptive story of ex-convict Jean Valjean set against the backdrop of French working class suffering circa early 19th Century.

As an adaption, this is pretty faithful to the source material. Only a few of the songs are curtailed or modified, and numerous details from the book have even been worked in that are ordinarily not featured in the musical. More interesting is the inclusion of an all new song, "Suddenly". On the surface it might appear a slightly cynical attempt to increase the volume of Oscar opportunities to include best original song, but it does serve a purpose of fleshing out a plot point from the book that is largely skimmed over in the regular musical production.

In a way this film is less an adaption of the musical or the book as much its own beast, taking elements from both and inventing entirely new material that takes advantage of the inherent qualities of cinema, adding elements to the production that would not be possible on stage or page. Where this film shines most of all is in the actors' performances. Two Oscar nominations for acting seems a certainty, and three or four entirely plausible.

Of greatest interest will be Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine. Pre-release opinion seemed to be largely divided on this casting, but anyone who is familiar with Hathaway's work will already know that she is an astounding singer. I am pleased to say that in this role she has also delivered by far her best acting performance, tender but powerful. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is indeed an actor's dream come true; filmed in a single take focused almost entirely on her face, it allows Hathaway to really show off what she can do. Arguably the high point of the entire film.

Hugh Jackman will also rightly earn plaudits for his Jean Valjean. On the back of a wildly successful stint on Broadway but lacking in true "triple A" cinema kudos, Jackman was another uncertain but ultimately inspired casting decision. Valjean has been dramatised by fine actors like Liam Neeson and sung by legendary stage performers like Colm Wilkinson (who has a small cameo role as the Bishop of Digne), but Jackman's ability to combine the subtlety of dramatic performance with his considerable vocal skills make this a complete portrayal unlike any other.

The other lead is Russell Crowe as police inspector Javert, Valjean's nemesis. This was the casting decision that worried me most of all, and it must be said it is the weak spot of an otherwise stellar ensemble. Don't get me wrong, Crowe is a fantastic actor, and at his best moments he brings real gravitas to the role, particularly in his key confrontations with Valjean. That said the role does appear a little miscast, with Valjean supposed to be the more physically intimidating of the two, something which is clearly not the case here. There is also real issue with his singing. Russell Crowe can sing, and does so in fact in a band back in Australia. Unfortunately being a decent singer does not make you suited to singing in a musical and Crowe's voice often sounds bland, lacking the dramatic vocal qualities that one would get from a seasoned stage performer.

However, my personal highlights among the excellent performances belongs to Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the morally bereft Thénardiers. I've never seen these roles, particularly that of the innkeeper himself, played so humorously through ad-libbing and creative delivery with such great effect. This is an example of pitch perfect casting, with Baron Cohen seemingly born for this role.

Finally a shout out to fellow Etonian Eddie Redmayne who continues to go from strength to strength, and embraces what could be a massive moment for his career. It's a fact that the two romantic characters Marius and Cosette also typically happen to be the least interesting characters in the story, but here Redmayne injects some much needed spark into his portrayal of Marius and makes him all the more sympathetic for it.

Ultimately what holds the film back from greatness is the filmmaking itself. I enjoy Tom Hooper's movies, but none of them have made me sit back and marvel at his directing ability. Hooper has been fortunate to work on some extraordinary projects and handled them ably, but does anyone really think that without Colin Firth he would have won that best director Oscar? The trouble is that a project this ambitious needs more than just a capable director, it needs a world class one, and Tom Hooper has yet to reach that level. At its finer moments Les Misérables glows with memorable cinematography; in particular the visually stunning opening scene that starts the film off with a bang. Indeed many of Hooper's artistic decisions, such as the oft mooted "live singing"and certains specific camera shots like the I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own sequences, are brilliant.

Unfortunately for much of the film the camera usage detracts from the production as a whole. Hooper's obsession with relentless close-up camera shots goes far beyond the one or two set pieces where it actually works. It can be very disorienting and often takes the audience away from the setting. More than that it's monotonous. Each song has a different feeling and a different energy level; some are introspective lullabies, and others are grand, powerful anthems. Every song has a different level of scale, a different level of intimacy. So it makes no sense for every single one to be filmed in this close and personal style, there is too often a fundamental discord between what the viewer is seeing and what he is hearing. In addition there are pacing problems in certain scenes, a perfect example being the early scene with Valjean and the Bishop of digne. It's an absolutely pivotal scene in the story of Les Misérables, and yet it's brushed over at a ridiculous speed. It's one thing if you're like me and you know the scene off by heart, but newbies may be at a loss as to what exactly is happening.

Despite its flaws, Les Misérables is still a fine film that will rightly be talked about when awards season rolls around. The performances are great, the production values top notch and the end result is one of the most emotionally powerful films in years. At the same time with weak direction and some uneven pacing, one can't help but see this as a missed opportunity for something truly spectacular.


Loves:
Great source material
Brilliant ensemble cast

Hates:
Flawed direction
Questionable pacing











Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Genre Indie Rock
Label Frenchkiss
Producers Alex Newport

bloc party four

It seems a long time ago that Bloc Party were the toast of the British indie rock scene. Storming out of the gates with two critical and commercial successes on their first two albums, they seemed a band with wide appeal; capable of both roof raising rock and melodic masterpieces.

Then it all went pear-shaped. Frontman Kele Okereke increasingly dragged the band towards tastelessly heavy electronica, much to the chagrin of fans and critics alike. The result was a band seemingly dead in the water until Kele departed to try his hand at a solo album, an ultimately fruitless endeavour that nevertheless appears to have allowed him to get it all out of his system.

Whatever the story, Bloc Party have returned, and the good news is that they're heading in the right direction. Four manages to rekindle some of the magic and style that made the band so special to begin with, offering songs that capture the depth of tone that has been missing in recent years.

Probably the best example is the not-quite-titular Day Four, exhibiting a melodic tenderness and soul not seen since the band's classic tracks I Still Remember and So Here We Are.

Elsewhere more upbeat songs like the excellent Truth indicate that Bloc Party have remembered how to rock out without sounding like a backed up sink. It's a change that I welcome.

So is this Bloc Party back to their best? Certainly not, but they are definitely moving in the right direction toward getting their groove back. While there are some very good songs on here indeed, they are few and far between, and much of the album ends lacking the consistency of their former glories. That said, the album is solid overall and a promising return to the recording studio for the boys from London.


Must Listen:
Day Four
Truth










Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Election day is finally upon us, a closely fought race between two people 90% of Americans hope never to hear from again. We may be a little late to this party, but here are The Ephemeric's last minute predictions before the polls close.

election 2012 ephemeric


Presidential Election: Obama Re-elected
Democratic Party electoral votes: 303
Republican Party electoral votes: 235
Key States to watch: CO, OH, VA, FL

The media has been making much of this "too close to call" election, in what is almost certainly nothing to do with a desire for high ratings come election night. The fact is that, love him or hate him, at no point during this election has Barack Obama held a losing position in the polls. Even when Mitt Romney has led in the national polls, the State level polling has never shown Romney with a winning position in the electoral college.

Some have tried to blame biased polling, or other unseemly methods of fraud, but the fact is that particularly in recent cycles the polling consensus is usually pretty good. In 2008 RealClearPolitics.com's poll aggregate was accurate to within 0.3% of the final popular vote. Meanwhile FiveThirtyEight.com blogger Nate Silver used his polling-based forecast model to correctly predict 49 out of 50 states and all 35 Senate races. The undeniable truth is that the polling has been quite clear in showing an Obama advantage, and if Romney is going to win, it will require a break from historical precedent.

The four closest States in terms of polling include Colorado, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. These are all States that Obama carried in 2008, and he has led in the polls there for much of this election cycle. Following Romney's strong victory in the first Presidential debate, his subsequent polling surge saw him lead or tie in each of these States aside from Ohio. The problem Mitt Romney faces is that realistically he must win each of these States to win the election. If Obama wins even one, then Romney would have to over-perform in a more reliably blue state like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, and right now there's little in the polling or anywhere else to suggest this is likely. If one of those states is called for Obama, it's a good sign that the election is pretty much wrapped up.



Senate Elections: Democrats retain majority
Democratic Party Senate seats: 53
Republican Party Senate seats: 47
Key States to watch: IN, MT, VA, MA

Earlier in the cycle the Republican Party was considered near certain to take a majority in the Senate. The Democratic majority was slim, and the 2012 cycle presented a far more favourable lineup of pickup opportunities for the Republicans even compared to 2010. However in recent months there has been a major turnaround, and the RCP average now expects Democrats to maintain their current majority. Nate Silver predicts the same, and suggests that the Democrats are equally likely to gain a seat as lose one.


So how has this happened? For most of the past year, Obama's poll numbers have been on the rise. This seems to have had a knock-on effect with the closest Senate races. Races like Massachusetts  and Virginia that were previously considered complete toss-ups are now quite consistently leaning blue in the polls. The other big factor is the Republican Party itself. It's hard to ignore the fact that the party keeps shooting itself in the foot as it were. It cost them the Senate majority in 2010 when off-the-wall candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Sharon Angle threw away what should have been easy victories, and this year history seems to be repeating. The obvious examples are Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, two states that should have been a formality for the Republicans, but now lean Democrat thanks to the two candidates' unorthodox comments on "rape" of all things.

A Republican majority in the Senate looks out of reach now, but they still have a very good shot of making gains. Whatever the result, few analysts expect a change by more than a seat or two in either direction.




House Elections: Republicans retain majority
Democratic Party Senate seats: 207
Republican Party Senate seats: 228

The United States House of Representatives has swung back and forth like a pendulum over the last few election cycles: a sweeping Democratic victory in 2008, a sweeping Republican victory in 2010. Never before has the House changed hands to such a degree three times in a row. For this reason few people if any expect the Democrats to be able to take back the chamber this year.

There were moments during the high points of Obama's polling over the summer in which it looked as though the majority could be within reach, but those numbers have subsided now. The RCP average shows an exact tie on the eve of election. Without getting into the nitty gritty of how the generic ballot works, this would see a moderate swing back towards the Democratic Party, as most people expect. The question is how big will this swing be.

The Democrats need a net gain of 26 seats to take back the House. This seems highly unlikely for three reasons:

  1. The generic ballot is unanimously considered a tie, in the previous three wave elections 2006, 2008 and 2010 the vote margin for the winning party was 16.8%, 9.5% and 6% respectively. 
  2. Individual House race polls have been relatively stable this cycle, and consensus seems to suggest a Democratic gain of about 10 seats.
  3. The Republican majority is large, but not so large that they've overextended themselves into deep blue States as was the case with Democrats in 2010.
So while there is likely to be little of consequence arising from this year's House elections, the expected result is a modest gain for the Democrats.


Media Circus: Unbearable

Of course my favourite part of the evening: the media circus that surrounds coverage of the elections. My safest prediction of the night is that each one will be as mind-numbing as it is predictable. So briefly then, what are your options for election coverage tonight?

CNN
Pros: Relatively neutral, Wolf Blitzer
Cons: 90% Twitter, obsessed with toys (eg holograms)

Fox News
Pros: Thorough coverage, usually first to project a winner
Cons: Only so many times I can watch footage of "scary minorities" at the polls before I start to feel uncomfortable.

MSNBC
Pros: The pure unbridled joy on Chris Matthews face might warm even my bitter heart
Cons: It's like Fox News aimed at people who hate Fox News, no wonder no one watches.

BBC/SKY
Pros: British, less bullshit
Cons: Euro-centric coverage

C-SPAN
Pros: Neutral, pure facts
Cons: No way I'm staying awake at 4AM with C-Span on.






Monday, 22 October 2012


Genre Alternative Rock
Label Island
Producers The Killers, Stuart Price, Steve Lillywhite, Damian Taylor, Brendan O'Brien, Daniel Lanois

the killers battle born

The Killers returning for their fourth studio album is certainly an event worthy of note. Such is the endurance of their early work that even a decade later it's entirely common to enter a club and hear the DJ play Mr. Brightside to rapturous response

Yet such early career success carries its own burden, and each new release seems to come with diminished hype. This has not been helped by a prolonged hiatus following the previous album, and a potentially ill advised dalliance into solo artistry by various band members. There is the perception of a group that has always struggled to live up to their own lofty standards, which is enormous when the number 1 spot on the albums chart has become the minimum expectation.

Battle Born is an interesting next step for The Killers. While the band has previously been praised for a great diversity of style in their music, this album doubles down on the faux-Springsteen "Americana" streak prominent in certain previous hits such as A Dustland Fairytale and When You Were Young. The band's trademark playfulness is almost entirely absent, with a near constant stream of soul-searching ballads of varying intensity. If this is your idea of The Killers at their best then this album is for you, otherwise you may find it difficult to get into.

There are notable exceptions. Flesh and Bone opens the album with a belter of a song, taking the uplifting vibe reminiscent of Human that is more commonly associated with the Killers. Meanwhile the titular Battle Born closes proceedings with an equally triumphant stadium filling anthem. However beyond this lies an album of almost pure cheese. Sometimes it works, landing on the right side of "charm": for an example see the excellent Miss Atomic Bomb and lead single Runaways. Otherwise there is little that stands out.

This is not to say that Battle Born is a bad album. On the contrary, once you get into it the album as a whole is quite listenable. The trouble is that on first listen the unflinching tone can be quite monotonous, and unlike previous releases there is little payoff for perseverance. The good news is that if this pattern of relatively weak even numbered albums continues, their next one ought to be a corker.

Must Listen:
Flesh and Bone
Miss Atomic Bomb
Runaways
Battle Born










Thursday, 13 September 2012

As my busy work schedule forces me to carefully ration out my blog postings like a weight-watching worker at a soup kitchen, I increasingly find myself having relying on these 'post-digests' to cram everything notable into a single bite-sized form.

Earlier in the Spring I brought you one such digest on the early 2012 London theatre scene. Well I am pleased to say that even as my writing efforts are on the wane, my commitment to enjoying the London stage remains strong. Here for your entertainment is a summer update, covering the essentials of London theatre these past few months:


"Gatz" Theatre Review
Directed by John Collins
Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Starring Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher, Susie Sokol
Theatre Noël Coward Theatre

gatz noel coward It sounds like a bad Andy Kaufman routine (in fact it was one), but bear with me.

New York's Elevator Repair Service theatre company have put together a new adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel, the Great Gatsby. Only this is no adaption, it's the entire novel, acted out before a live audience. Yes, this production is eight hours long in total, plus a one and a half hour break for dinner, and presents for your enjoyment the entirety of the novel, word for word.

"Why would someone do this?" You might ask. Well the Great Gatsby is not just a famous novel, it's a novel that's equally famous for its failed attempts at adapting to other media. There have been other plays and films, but not one has done it justice.

Aficionados will tell you that it's the loss of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unique sway of language that makes the text so difficult to adapt. That's the rationale behind this ambitious production which utilizes the entire novel unabridged. Fortunately it's a production decision that has turned out to be absolute brilliance.

Make no mistake, this is not just an evening out to see a show, this is the whole day. Not there just for passing entertainment, one feels as though they are participating as much as the performers. The good news is that this production is easily worth the time. In fact, after bracing myself for something of an ordeal, the whole afternoon passed by in what seemed no longer than an ordinary stage play. Such is the slickness of this production that proceedings rarely seemed to drag at all throughout it's eight hour run.

It's a great novel and excellently rendered by the cast, with particular regard to narrator/Nick Carraway played by Scott Shepherd who allegedly has the entire book memorised. But this is more than just a dry reading of a classic work; the production itself is set in what appears a mundane office enviroment, Shepherd sits at a desk typing away, casually sneaking a quick read of Gatsby while his co-workers wander around tending to their own business.

As we draw deeper into the novel, the setting begins to mimic the events laid out on page until we reach a point where the entire office space is simply acting out the novel itself. This dynamic is used very effectively, often with a good sense of humour as it contributes to the full audience experience. Rightly so, when you're making an entire day out of a theatre trip, you need to offer more than just the basic narrative for sustenance.

So while it may sound a bit much, this is one production I can not recommend highly enough. It is one of the best things I've seen in theatre this year, and some of the most fun I've had at the theatre as far back as I can remember.





"Timon of Athens" Theatre Review
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by William Shakespeare
Starring Simon Russell Beale
Theatre Royal National Theatre

timon of athens simon russell beale national theatreAs anyone who is familiar with the London theatre scene will tell you, seeing Simon Russell Beale perform Shakespeare produces as great a thrill as any on stage. Few actors can speak the Bard's four-hundred year old dialect with such accessible ease, and yet such is his mastery of phrase that one would barely even notice that he was speaking in an archaic fashion.

He is on form again with Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays. Timon sets himself as the generous and spendthrift heart of Athens social culture, until suddenly he finds himself short on credit, and is promptly abandoned by all his fair weather friends and opportunists.

It's an important story, and one that is as typically and impeccably produced by the National Theatre company as it is strongly acted. But the real distinguishing element is how topical and current the setting feels. Nominally set in Athens, the NT's stage production is visually and contextually placed squarely in the skyscrapers and galas of the London financial district.

You don't have to be obsessively plugged into current events to see how such a story might fit in to the current state of the economy, and from the sterile boardrooms to swanky art galleries and soho clubs, the production hits very close to home. As the story progresses, this opulence quickly transforms to the focus on the social inequity crisis, complete with allusions to the prominent Occupy movement. It's hard to believe that this was written so long ago.

All this makes for a remarkable feat of an old play, and great credit must be given to director Nicholas Hytner. At the same time, it serves as just another example of how a well written play can remain timelessly relevant.









Monday, 3 September 2012

It's been a glorious summer of sport with Euro 2012 and the Olympics to tide us over, one could almost be forgiven for barely noticing that club football had even ended. Not me though, I am raring and ready to go for the new season, and I know you are too.

As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few solid predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2012/13 preview


Premier League 2011/12 in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea
Relegated: QPR, Southampton, Norwich
Golden Boot winner: Robin Van Persie (Man U)
Golden Glove winner: Joe Hart (Man City)
Player to watch: Carlos Tevez (Man City)
New signing to watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Young player to watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Mark Hughes (QPR)
Shock of the season: Arsenal wins something



ARSENAL

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 3rd
Manager: Arsene Wenger

The Arsenal faithful could be forgiven for bringing up the famous Yogi Berra quote "It's déjà vu all over again" as they once more watch a key player and club captain walk the silver-lined path to bigger things. But really who could blame Robin Van Persie? The last ten players to leave the Emirates have won nine league titles, three Champions Leagues and twenty two other titles between them, while over the same time period Arsenal have won bupkis.

But this is not necessarily a time of crisis for the club. Every season Arsenal seem to find themselves in a similar position, and yet they always manage to pull through and maintain their place on the fringe of the Premier League's top tier clubs. Arsene Wenger deserves a lot of credit for this.

This season the club have even been uncharacteristically active in the transfer market, spending one excess of £40 million on the likes of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santiago Cazorla. These look to be fine signings, but success is far from guaranteed; Podolski has struggled to live up to his potential in the German League, while Giroud comes from relative obscurity. Out of the three it's Cazorla who looks the safest bet to become a key player for the club.

Of the existing personnel, the return of Jack Wilshere after a nightmarish season in the physioroom will make a big difference, as will the fitness of new club captain Thomas Vermaelen. Fans will also be counting on the continued development of youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Key Signing: Lukas Podolski
Key Man: Thomas Vermaelen

Verdict: A title challenge seems unlikely, but barring a major failing of the new blood, the club will still squeeze its way to a safe top 4 finish.


ASTON VILLA

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,593
Last season: 16th
Manager: Paul Lambert

In retrospect Alex McLeish was always going to have a tough time winning over the Villans, not least of all because of his controversial move from arch rivals Birmingham, fresh from getting them relegated. Indeed it turned out to be the worst fit for a club since Brian Clough went to Leeds. McLeish was promptly shown the door.

Enter stage left Paul Lambert, one of Britain's brightest young managerial prospects whose successful tenure in charge of Norwich culminated in a journey from the depths of the lower leagues to mid table safety in the Premier League last season.

Lambert's task is a difficult one. The club has been on a downward spiral ever since Martin O'Neill quit, and most of the team he had created has followed him out the door. Lambert's job description entails no less than a major rebuild. Six new players have already been signed..

Key Signing: Karim El-Ahmadi
Key Man: Darren Bent

Verdict: A year of transition for an under performing club. Lambert is undoubtedly capable of doing the job, but one shouldn't expect miracles too quickly.


CHELSEA

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 42,449
Last season: 6th
Manager: Roberto Di Matteo

Consistency has never been Chelsea's strong suit, but last season saw this habit taken to new extremes. On the one hand the club suffered a miserable 6th place finish in the league, but then they won two out of three major trophies, including an historic first ever Champions League title for a London club. Simultaneously their worst season in a decade and their best in the club's history.

Understandably then there is a great deal of uncertainty ahead of this season. The new manager is a club legend as a player, and as caretaker manager led the club to historic success last season. But there are serious doubts over how he will be able to cope with a full season in charge, with very different expectations upon him than when he took the reigns last Spring, with the club pretty much circling the drain. Add to this the fact that talismanic frontman Didier Drogba has finally moved on and Frank Lampard is on the decline and you can see that this promises to be a tumultuous year of transition. The days of the Mourinho old guard are finally coming to an end.

But on the bright side, the club have strengthened well this summer with Eden Hazard, one of the hottest prospects in European football, as well as young Brazilian hotshot Oscar and Marko Marin who once upon a time was the next big thing in Germany. Add to this the continued progress of youth products like Ryan Bertrand and Daniel Sturridge, amongst others, and this Chelsea team certainly has the look of a squad with big things ahead of it, even if not necessarily this season.

Of the existing squad, defensive stalwarts Ashley Cole, John Terry and Petr Cech remain key to this team's success, but the new focus appears to be very much on attacking football. Following the new signings this is a team that now appears over saturated in the attacking midfield area and it will be interesting to see how Di Matteo can fit them in. Elsewhere Fernando Torres has a make-or-brea season coming up following an inconsistent start to his Chelsea career. He showed great promise with strong performances particularly in the tail-end of last season when he scored his first hat trick as well as key goals on their way to Champions League glory. Winning the Golden Boot in Euro 2012 will have done wonders for his confidence but now he really has no excuse not to deliver.

Key Signing: Eden Hazard
Key Man: Petr Cech

Verdict: Lack of depth up front is a concern, with only the inconsistent Torres on the books as an out-and-out striker. Few would predict a title challenge for this young team so soon, but certainly the minimum expectation will be top four, any less will be a failure.


EVERTON

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 7th
Manager: David Moyes

Same old story for one of the most consistent teams in the league and one of the steadiest managers around. Probably the most important development for the club this summer has been David Moyes resisting the allure of Tottenham to stay put at Goodison. Moyes will now have another year to attempt a surge into European contention on a shoestring budget.

Tim Cahill's time at the club has come to an end, and Jack Rodwell has finally made his move to a bigger club with Manchester City his ultimate destination. On the other hand they have resigned Steven Pienaar who, despite there not being many Tottenham fans who are too sorry to see him leave, was once a solid player, and can be again. They have also signed Kevin Mirallas, one of the myriad of attacking midfielders in Belgium's "golden generation".

Following the Rodwell sale, Everton find themselves in the rare position of actually having money to spend, and still a few weeks in which to do it. However the most important move the club's management can make in the near future will be an extension of David Moyes' contract, now with one year left to run.

Key Signing: Kevin Mirallas
Key Man: Leighton Baines

Verdict: Again, will probably be around the same place as they end up every year, barring a miracle or a disaster.


FULHAM

Nickname: Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 26,000
Last season: 9th
Manager: Martin Jol

Martin Jol did well to get this Fulham team into the top ten after their terrible start last season, but it would be foolish to rest on their laurels.

Indeed with the loss of Bobby Zamora last year and captain Danny Murphy this summer, there are holes all over the pitch that need filling. Fortunately the club have been active in bringing new firepower to the club. Hugo Rodallega joins from Wigan, and despite an awful last season he has impressed more often than not in recent years for a poor Wigan side. In addition Mladen Petric signs from Hamburg, and will be hoping to strike up a productive relationship with his manager, with whom he has worked in the past.

More concerning will be the overtures being directed towards Moussa Dembélé and Clint Dempsey, the later being one of the best players in the league last season. If Jol can keep ahold of those two, and keep them happy, then I foresee decent results this season, otherwise they could easily sink down the table, and fast.

Key Signing: Mladen Petric
Key Man: Clint Dempsey

Verdict: Very much contingent on certain players not leaving, but should achieve another comfortable mid table finish.


LIVERPOOL

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 45,362
Last season: 8th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Another very poor season left the Reds in 8th place, and Kenny Dalglish without a job, patience having run thin despite his club legend status and Carling Cup victory.

The new man is the up-and-coming Brendan Rodgers, following successful stints with the Chelsea youth team and more prominently Swansea's successful first season in the top flight last year. The club has shown in recent years that it is not averse to taking a managerial risk on someone with little big-club experience. It hasn't worked well for them in the past, but fans will have fingers crossed that in this time they may finally have found the right man for the job.

They have coped well following the loss of Fernando Torres, though perhaps eyebrows will be raised at the club’s decision to blow more than two times the Torres income (£45m) on largely unproven players like Andy Carroll (£35m), Jordan Henderson (£20), Stewart Downing (£20) and Luis Suarez (£23); although in the case of Suarez, the money appears to have been well spent, the jury is still out on the rest.

Despite their underachievement in recent years it's hard to pinpoint exactly where this Liverpool side is faltering. In Pepe Reina they have a fine goalkeeper, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel make a fine back line. Instead their problems must lie up front; while Luis Suárez is an immensely talented player he doesn't have the physique to handle a lone striker's role without a backup. Meanwhile Stewart Downing on the wing was one of the disaster stories of last season.

The closest thing to a remedy this summer has been the signing of Italian youngster and Chelsea youth product Fabio Borini. Deemed surplus to needs at Stamford Bridge, Borini then went on to have a very successful season in the Championship with Brendan Rodgers at Swansea, before moving to Italy for two years. It looks like he finally has his shot at the Premier League. Elsewhere the club has signed youngster Joe Allen, also formally a Rodgers player at Swansea, who impressed recently at the Olympics for Team GB.

Key Signing: Joe Allen
Key Man: Luis Suárez

Verdict: Every season seems to be a new beginning for the club lately. As big a fan of Brendan Rodgers as I am, I would be surprised and impressed if he can pull off anything better than 5th or 6th place this season.


MANCHESTER CITY

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 48,000
Last season: Champions
Manager: Roberto Mancini

It was inevitable that heavy investment would yield success, and so it happened that Manchester City won the title after decades of waiting, and in the most dramatic way possible. You have to say they deserve it too, they simply have the greatest array of talent in the league right now, although Manchester United push them pretty close.

Roberto Mancini proved all the doubters wrong in some style, although in fairness with these kinds of resources Ian Dowie could probably win the title too. The squad has not been strengthened much at all this summer, and why would it with all the talent at their disposal? Despite this, it's likely that the club will be challenging once again at the top of the table. Instead the goal for Manchester City must be to push forward and attempt to make an impression in Europe finally. It's a tall ask and a big step up from the domestic league, but anything is possible.

Jack Rodwell is a fine, if largely superfluous singing, and the club will feel unfortunate to have missed out on Robin Van Persie. More interesting is the return to good graces of Carlos Tévez, seemingly on the way out after he refused to play for the club and practically went on strike. Now that City are Champions though, suddenly Manchester doesn't seem so bad and he looks set to become a key part of their attack.

Key Signing: I wouldn't call him key, but Jack Rodwell is the only one so far
Key Man: David Silva

Verdict: Will challenge again, but important to note that they only just squeaked it last year, and rivals United have improved over the summer. They have a great shot, but I don't predict back to back titles, a feat only achieved during the Premier League era by Chelsea and Manchester United.


MANCHESTER UNITED

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 76,000
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

Luck just wasn't on their side as Manchester United found themselves trumped to the title in the dying seconds by a hungrier Manchester City side. But the fact still remains that this should have been United's title; with eight games to go they were comfortably in the lead, only to throw it away in a manner that is most uncharacteristic for an Alex Ferguson team.

The manner in which this grave defeat was inflicted more than anything will spur the club on this season, determined to set the record straight, and even though City may appear the stronger side on paper in many regards, it is hard to bet against United.

City have barely changed this summer, and will be relying on increased team cohesion and maturation of young talent to move forward. United on the other hand have strengthened well, with Dortmund's gifted Shinji Kagawa joining the squad along with Arsenal's star man Robin Van Persie. The club now boasts an embarrassment of attacking riches, including a fantasy pairing of Wayne Rooney and Van Persie.

Key Signing: Robin Van Persie
Key Man: Wayne Rooney

Verdict: Desperately unlucky to take the crown last time, but will begin the new season as favourites.


NEWCASTLE UNITED

Nickname: Magpies
Ground: St. James' Park
Capacity: 52,387
Last season: 5th
Manager: Alan Pardew

Last season proved to be an astonishing success story for Newcastle, who achieved a fantastic 5th place finish on only their second season back in the top flight. What's more impressive is how they managed it, with quality performances from a quality group of players. The club has strong management from Pardew and some astute player recruitment to thank for this success.

A top notch defence has formed, featuring the likes of Simpson, Taylor, the other Taylor and Krul in goal. Their midfield is exceptionally gifted, with Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Tioté and Gutiérrez. Meanwhile they managed to find two of the best signings of last season in the Senegalese striker partnership of Papiss Cissé and Demba Ba. This is no longer just a plucky newly promoted side, this is a team that can compete with the very best out there.

This season will be different however, with the increased weight of expectation and the wariness with which other clubs will now view Newcastle. Add to this the increased physical burden added by a European cup campaign and suddenly one might start to doubt whether the club has sufficient depth to compete at the same level. Fans will rightly be ebullient over last season's triumphs, but they would do well to approach this year with caution, as a similarly high finish in the table is far from certain, and such aspirations may in fact be doomed to disappointment.

Key Signing: Vurnon Anita
Key Man: Papiss Cissé
Verdict: Unlikely to achieve the same high standing as last season, but should at least manage high mid table.


NORWICH CITY

Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,033
Last season: 12th
Manager: Chris Hughton

Last season was job done for the Canaries, and another impressive accomplishment for Paul Lambert, who has since moved on to a bigger and greater challenge at Aston Villa. Under new management, this season will be more difficult for the club, however in Chris Hughton they have chosen well, and placed the club in very capable hands.

That being said, they still face what is very much an uphill battle. So frequently we see clubs come up from the lower divisions and do ok in their first year, only to suffer second-season-itis and go right back down the next. This could easily happen to Norwich this year; a team with little top flight quality on paper, a loss of a talismanic manager, and despite Chris Hughton's best efforts, a real possibility for the drop.

A long season lies ahead, but Norwich are certainly not going to be pushovers.

Key Signing: Javier Garrido
Key Man: Grant Holt
Verdict: Staying in the Premier League will be a tough challenge. We were bullish over their chances last season, but this time not so much.


QUEENS PARK RANGERS

Nickname: The Hoops
Ground: Loftus Road
Capacity: 18,360
Last season: 17th
Manager: Mark Hughes

Despite their considerable resources, QPR only just managed to stay in the top flight last season. Neil Warnock was deemed not entertaining enough to stay at the club, and world class scowler Mark Hughes took his place.

To their credit they have made some very solid signings this summer, including Ryan Nelsen, Park Ji-Sung, Robert Green and José Bosingwa. Despite this much needed squad depth, they still have the look of a team against whom the odds of survival are very much stacked unfavourably. Add to that the fact that for the most part despite his reputation as a player Mark Hughes has yet to really shine as a manager in this league and you have the recipe for a club who look certain to at least be involved in the relegation tussle.

Let's not even mention Joey Barton.

Key Signing: Park Ji-Sung
Key Man: Adel Taraabt

Verdict: For all Mark Hughes' bluster he seems to have a very short life expectancy at his jobs, and there's a reason for that. Expect QPR to finish in or around relegation zone.


READING

Nickname: The Royals
Ground: Madejski Stadium
Capacity: 24,161
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Brian McDermott

Consistency is the name of the game at McDermott's Reading side, with many of these players having been together for a number of years now. This ability to form a cohesive unit has seen Reading improve greatly with each passing season, and last year they finally claimed their reward by running out as Champions of the Championship, earning promotion back to the top flight.

In addition they have the vast wealth of new owner Anton Zingarevich to fall back on, certainly not in the same league as the owners of Manchester City or Chelsea, but enough that the club has been able to bring in players with top flight experience straight away.

Yet Reading have still been made one of the favourites for the drop this season. It's true that they may not have the name recognition in club or manager or players of some of the other teams to be promoted in recent years, but write them off at your own peril. McDermott has proven himself a shrewd manager, and as QPR showed us, money can make a big difference in a relegation battle.

Key Signing: Danny Guthrie
Key Man: Adam Le Fondre

Verdict: Reading will be tough to beat, and even if they are struggling by January, they will invest heavy. A struggle awaits, but I expect the club to finish a little above relegation when all is said and done.


SOUTHAMPTON

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Nigel Adkins

The turnaround for this club has been remarkable. Having gone through a Leeds-esque collapse involving administration and multiple relegations, the fact that they have managed to claw their way back to the top flight is remarkable. It's manager Nigel Adkins who has seen them this far by forming one of the more resilient and physical sides of the lower divisions.

However the Premier League will be an entirely different beast, and the club now finds itself with a largely League One playing staff. It will take more than guts for them to stay up this season.

Fortunately the club has been quick to strengthen this summer with some real top flight quality, including Jay Rodriguez and Steven Davis. Meanwhile Crystal Palace's Nathaniel Clyne is a very bright talent with the England youth squad, and has long been tipped with a step up to the Premier League. The question is will this be enough considering the dearth of proven quality elsewhere in the squad compared to their rivals in the Premier League?

Key Signing: Steven Davis
Key Man: Adam Lallana

Verdict: Will be an incredible achievement if they manage to avoid relegation, but don't bet on it.


STOKE

Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
Last season: 14th
Manager: Tony Pulis

Another impressive season for Pulis' Stoke City team. Now firmly established in the Premier League, Pulis has also brought this side to the FA Cup final and the Europa League. The question is how much further he can really take the club.

Stoke's rapid progress to where they are now has come at a cost, and the club finds itself saddled with players it can no longer afford, while also no longer being able to land marquee signings like Peter Crouch.

They've competed now at the highest level, they've done it while mounting a strong cup run and a solid European campaign. The question now is whether it can be done in a sustainable fashion, because despite their reasonable efforts people still aren't flocking to JD Sports to pick up the latest Stoke kit. This could be Pulis' greatest challenge yet, but if he can pull it off then it would be a massive step forward for the club.

Key Signing: Michael Kightly
Key Man: Peter Crouch

Verdict: A lower half of the table finish, but safe, just.


SUNDERLAND

Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Capacity: 48,300
Last season: 13th
Manager: Martin O'Neill

A disastrous start to the season saw Steve Bruce make way for the incomparable Martin O'Neill. From years of watching the man one would be convinced that there is no ship he can not steady, and no right he can not put wrong. And so it happened that O'Neill's arrival saw a significant and immediate bounce in the club's fortunes, though somewhat tempered by an end of season lapse which saw the club end up in a disappointing 13th place.

There has been some alarm from Sunderland fans over the perceived lack of transfer activity this summer, but those fans would do well to remember the 30 odd players signed in the past three years that have done little to contribute to club stability. In addition, there is still the prospect of additional signings before the transfer window snaps shut, with a move for Wolves' Steven Fletcher supposedly on the cards.

This is a club which already possesses its fair share of talent, from Sessegnon to Mignolet and Cattermole to bright youngsters such as Colback, McClean and Wickham. With this team, and O'Neill in charge, the minimum expectation has to be a comfortable mid-table finish, with a potential push for Europa League places if one or two more signings are brought in.

Key Signing: Carlos Cuéllar
Key Man: Lee Cattermole

Verdict: Push for a Europa League place, but mid-table finish should be the minimum aim.


SWANSEA CITY

Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 20,532
Last season: 11th
Manager: Michael Laudrup

Something of a sensation in their first season in the top flight, Swansea managed to achieve top flight safety relatively early on. What was most impressive was the manner in which this was done, playing entertaining, attacking football, showing a confidence in the face of major opposition that belied their relatively low stature.

But now ex-Chelsea youth coach and Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers has moved on to giants Liverpool, and many of his charges are set to follow suit. The most devastating of these will be gifted Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigur∂sson, but the club will also miss young Welsh hotshot Joe Allen.

The good news is that from outgoing transfers and top flight television money, the club can afford to go out and effectively buy a whole new team if they wish, and new manager/Danish legend Michael Laudrup looks set to continue his predecessor's football philosophy. In particular the £2 million signing of Michu, who scored 15 goals in La Liga last season, appears to be something of a coup and some astoundingly good business.

Key Signing: Michu
Key Man: Nathan Dyer

Verdict: Second seasons can be tough, but if Laudrup finds his feet quickly then this club can eke out a safe position in the middle of the table.


TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: White Hart Lane
Capacity: 36,236
Last season: 4th
Manager: André Villas-Boas

It's been a summer of upheaval for Tottenham; unlucky to miss out on Champions League football at the end of last season, and then the surprise sacking of Harry Redknapp who most definitely did not cheat on his taxes. Now they have recruited André Villas-Boas, fresh off his turbulent and ultimately failed tenure at Chelsea. It's a bold move which not only provides the club with the opportunity to get one over their major rival, but offers AVB an immediate shot at redemption and vindication.

With so much on the line, it's no wonder the club has added to its already impressive squad. Jan Vertonghen is the latest in a long line of Belgian starlets to join the English league recently, while Gylfi Sigur∂sson was one of the best players of last season for entertainers Swansea. Emmanuel Adebayor seems like a common sense addition following his successful loan spell with the club last season, and the fact that their only out and out striker besides him is the inconsistent Jermain Defoe. He also looks a steal at just £5 million (although one has to wonder about the wages).

Whatever happens, Spurs will be a club worth watching this season. An ambitious young manager looks certain to amend a new look Tottenham side, with several key players on their way out including Luka Modric. Designs are very much on a top four finish and Champions League football, but it will be difficult

Key Signing: Emmanuel Adebayor
Key Man: Gareth Bale

Verdict: The goal is a top four finish, but with the level of competition and the requisite adjustment period for a jarring new manager, this seems an unlikely target.


WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Latest club news

Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,500
Last season: 10th
Manager: Steve Clarke

Roy Hodgson was poached by the England national team following an impressive season with West Brom. His departure will rock the club, but was swift in replacing him with Steve Clarke. As Clarke's first full management job, this move presents something of a risk.

Clarke served for many years as Chelsea assistant manager, where he was routinely hailed as a key component of the successful Mourinho years for the club, however he departed for Liverpool after being told in no uncertain terms that the club had no intention of promoting him to manager with so little experience under his belt. Now he has finally been given his chance, and his performance will be watched with great interest to see if he can prove all the doubters wrong.

What's more, he's got a good shot at doing just that. The club have signed shrewdly this summer, including the likes of Ben Foster, Romelu Lukaku on loan, and Claudio Yacob. In addition they still have the same core squad featuring Shane Long, Chris Brunt and Peter Odemwingie, but questions will be raised over squad depth.

Key Signing: Claudio Yacob
Key Man: Peter Odemwingie

Verdict: Should have enough to avoid a serious relegation threat, but much uncertainty over inexperienced manager's ability to cope.


WEST HAM UNITED
Latest club news

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Capacity: 35,016
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Sam Allardyce

Sam Allardyce's style may not have won him too many fans, even from among the West Ham faithful, but he got the job done. The club had to satisfy for a playoff end to the season rather than straight promotion, but they got their in the end, and found their way to the promised land of the Premier League. Now they must find a way to stay there.

Fortunately in Allardyce they have exactly the right man for the job. A familar face in the top flight, Allardyce is notorious for his hard fought, take no prisoners style. It's not pretty, but it's effective, and while it's completely at odds with what West Ham fans idealise about their club, it might just be their best hope.

As one might expect from an Allardyce team, West Ham's play comes mainly down the middle, where Kevin Nolan is still a threat despite his advancing years, and Ricardo Vaz Tê an effective frontman. This summer they have added more defensive cover in the form of James Collins, Alou Diarra and goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen. They won't set the Premier League alight as Swansea did last season, but they will be tough to beat.

Key Signing: Jussi Jääskeläinen
Key Man: Kevin Nolan

Verdict: Could conceivably find themselves dragged into a relegation battle, but with Sam Allardyce at the helm they have the tools to avoid any serious threat; a good chance of survival.


WIGAN ATHLETIC

Nickname: Latics
Ground: JJB Stadium
Capacity: 25,000
Last season: 15th
Manager: Roberto Martínez

Every season I predict Wigan to get relegated, and every season they defy the odds to just about escape this fate in the dying stages of the season. So this year, while my first instinct may be that they face a struggle to survive, I suspect they may just squeak it once again.

Roberto Martínez has done a heck of a job keeping the club treading water despite all the close calls, and it's no wonder he was pursued so aggressively by Liverpool this summer. Latics fans will no doubt be thrilled that he resisted the Reds' allure.

Goals have always been the problem with this team. Franco Di Santo is getting better, but unfortunately still remains far from consistent, while new signing Arouna Koné brings some much needed reinforcement to this area. Still, there is no doubt that this team's strength lies in its solid defence, including goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, Maynor Figueroa and Iván Ramis.

Key Signing: Arouna Koné
Key Man: Maynor Figueroa

Verdict: It will be a tough season again, but I am backing them to just scrape survival yet again.


Predicted table:
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Arsenal
4. Chelsea
5. Tottenham
6. Newcastle
7. Liverpool
8. Everton
9. Sunderland
10. Fulham
11. Stoke City
12. Swansea
13. West Brom
14. West Ham
15. Aston Villa
16. Reading
17. Wigan
18. Queens Park Rangers
19. Southampton
20. Norwich

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