Decontaminating the pop-music sandbox with Secrets in the Salt.

[SMARTPOP] Pop sometimes seems like the lazy little brother of the musical family—while big brother is mixing experimental time signatures with tricky guitar hooks, pop is peeing in the sandbox: finding a catchy riff, repeating it four times, maybe adding a bridge.

But there's an art to writing good, smart, complex pop music, and Secrets in the Salt has it down. "No one's gonna listen if it's too bizarre. And we're not going to enjoy it if it's too simple," says Grant Burgess, singer/guitarist for Portland quartet Secrets in the Salt. "We have to find that middle ground at all times."

Found it they have. The band—composed of Midwest transplants, with the exception of Gresham native Burgess—demonstrated this with the release of its five-song Krill Through Baleen EP earlier this month. With Baleen, Secrets offers a slick blend of self-aware pop laced with darkness and a smattering of New Wave influence to keep things from getting hypoglycemic.

Just don't ask the twentysomethings in the band what Secrets in the Salt's songs are about. When asked what "Hello, Sam," a bouncy, fuzzy track with a thick layer of easy synth on top, is about, Grant counters by asking, "What do you think it's about?"

"Mental illness," I answer.

"Well, maybe it is," he laughs, rubbing his shaved head.

"It's best to draw your own conclusions," says co-composer and guitarist/keyboardist Neil Loehlein.

What began three years ago with Burgess and Loehlein performing as a folk duo quickly evolved into a four-piece pop band with the addition of bassist Daniel Martin Austin and drummer Ty Phelps—Phelps being the band's energetic core who imbues live shows with kinetic glee. And while international influences round out the young band's distinctly familiar sound, the ever-present infectious pop almost betrays individual them. It's just so catchy.

"When we first moved into the poppier stuff, I was like, 'What the hell are we doing?'" says Austin, laughing, as his bandmates chuckle. "Theoretically, I came in for an emo band."

And sometimes Secrets in the Salt could be called emo. Or ska. Or good, old-fashioned pop. It's the kind of instantly accessible sound that just might make overachieving big brothers want to spend some time in the sandbox.

SEE IT: Secrets in the Salt plays the Crown Room Thursday, Jan. 29, with Little Czar and the Psalmist. 9:30 pm, free; and Pine St. Bistro Saturday, Jan. 31, with DJ Pharo, 9 pm. Free. 21+.