SPOON at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Sunday (June 5). $17.50. 416-870-8000, 416-466-0313. Rating: NNNNN
In the band mythology of Austin, Texas's, Spoon, Jim Eno is generally portrayed as a shadowy and elusive presence lurking in the background.
The ace drummer and studio savant co-founded the rock outfit with Britt Daniel just over two decades ago and has been the only other core member ever since, but most fair-weather fans perceive Spoon as Daniel's baby, and the frontman/lyricist serves as the band's de facto mouthpiece when it comes to wrangling the press.
Eno's conspicuous absence is unfortunate, since the sonic success of Spoon's most recent recordings - 2002's star-making Kill The Moonlight and their killer new Gimme Fiction - has a lot to do with his influence in the studio.
So what's the deal with the mystery man act?
"I like it that way," laughs Eno from his Austin home base. "Besides, I can't write songs, so someone has to write something for me to play on. Britt's always been totally open to my weird ideas about rhythm - and I've been known to do some pretty wacky things."
Eno's percussion prowess is more evident on Gimme Fiction (Merge) than on any other Spoon album to date. Where their 2001 debut for Merge, Girls Can Tell (created in the wake of major-label drama), laid the foundation for the group's pared-down sound with raw, guitar-driven pop, and Kill The Moonlight tweaked that paradigm with atmospheric experimentation and quirky effects like backwards-looped drum machines, Gimme Fiction is 11 taut tracks of pulsating, shimmying, beat-driven rock 'n' roll.
Try not to move your ass to the jubilant backbeat and cymbal crash of the summery Sister Jack, which sounds like a Pernice Brothers-backed Elvis Costello covering I Want To Hold Your Hand, or the greasy, elastic syncopation of the disco-falsetto I Turn My Camera On. It's impossible.
"That's the way I like to play the drums - if you can't move around, it's not a good beat," says Eno. "I have to make the rhythm section and the drums as perfect for the song as possible. On Was It You?, I have to play literally the same beat for about five whole minutes. It was really, really boring," he chuckles, "but that's what worked best for that song."
So you can't, like, be Keith Moon on every track?
"Man, I couldn't be Keith Moon on any track, even if I wanted to," snorts Eno, launching into an explanation of Spoon's ethos of spaciousness. Along with almost obsessive-compulsive perfectionist tendencies, the band's guiding philosophy is to leave loads of sonic breathing room within their tunes.
Eno, Daniel and co-producer Mike McCarthy like to turn every track into a kind of self-contained mini-epic. Gimme Fiction one-ups the occasionally disjointed vibe of Kill The Moonlight with a much more cohesive whole. It's like a comic strip whose disparate frames link together into a smooth narrative.
That's partly due to the triumvirate's attention to sequencing and inter-track transitions. In the final 30 seconds of track two, the cabaret-tinged Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine, the swoopy strings seem to get sucked into a vacuum, fading away into a grunting bass thud that's the perfect set-up for I Turn My Camera On.
"Everything we do is conscious, even the smallest grunt," enthuses Eno. "My favourite transition happens between the next two tracks, cuz Camera On ends in a very mellow way. Then, at the beginning of My Mathematical Mind, the piano starts up in a dissonant way and you can't quite figure out the melody or the direction it's going until you hear the shouted 'Oh!' and then it settles into a groove."
The dude's a fanatical genius, huh?
Unlike most zealous perfectionists, however, Eno insists he's actually the level-headed, optimistic counterpart to Daniel's self-effacing critic.
"With every record we've done, I've always liked all of our songs," Eno continues. "Looking back, Britt doesn't like everything - he's always trying to be better and better as a songwriter - but I don't have to worry. I can look back and listen to particular songs and they'll take me back to the precise time and place when they were written or when we first recorded or played them.
"I've been there since the beginning, and I think he's just hitting his stride as a songwriter now."