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The sweetened punch of The Zags

Catchy as hell

Portland band The Zags craft perfect pop songs. Photo courtesy of Facebook

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One of the first vinyl LPs I ever purchased - back when I was in the habit of grazing through the discount bins and picking up anything that looked vaguely familiar from years listening to classic rock - was Singles - 45's and Under by Squeeze. It's a near-perfect collection of Squeeze's singles leading up to 1982. I only knew them from the ubiquitous "Tempted," which I would soon learn wasn't nearly as good as the rest of their material.

What I had found was a goldmine of pristine New Wave and power pop from one of the most underrated bands in history. From their early work with dark electro to their blue-eyed soul, Squeeze were almost unparallelled when it came to melody and the ever-elusive hook. To this day, I'm not sure pop music can get much better than "Goodbye Girl," "Up the Junction," "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" or "Another Nail in My Heart." With my upraising rooted in the pop of the '50s and '60s, Squeeze was the perfect engine to push me into the kind of thoughtful pop that would only reside in the indie underground.

The Zags are a prime example of the kind of devotees that worship at the feet of the perfect pop song. It's not surprising that the band, hailing from Portland, has received so many comparisons to Squeeze, though they've only been around for a little over a year. In that time, they've released several singles, which have just been assembled into their debut EP, Small Bags. Every song is a triumph of economy, packing punch and beautiful harmonies into rarely more than 2-and-a-half minutes.

"David Ricardo was the main impetus of getting The Zags started," says drummer Pete Schreiner. "At the time, I was looking through Craigslist to find people to play with. I had just moved to Portland a couple of years before. ... Eventually, I met up with David, and he brought in Stanton Hall on bass and Rachel Broach on keys. I guess that all happened over the course of a few months."

To be specific, Schreiner and Ricardo first exchanged emails in March of 2013, and by the summer, The Zags had already released their first single, "It's Over," to much acclaim. It's astonishing, listening to that first single - not to mention the rest of the eventual EP - knowing that these people had just begun to collaborate, let alone that the material was recorded in Ricardo's basement. Not only is everything crisp and clean as can be, but the M.O. of the Zags seems to have come fully formed.

Taking sonic cues not only from power pop acts like Squeeze and Cheap Trick, but from the '60s indebted indie jangle of New Zealand mainstays like the Clean and the Bats, The Zags seem to be in constant search for the quickest and best route from the thrilling opening to the catchy-as-hell chorus to the ending that leaves you wanting more. Though the guitars can get a little crunchy, the three-part harmonies are frequently there to sweeten the proceedings. Ricardo, as the frontman, carries with him the kind of energetic vocal that would've created a superstar in the indie pop circles of the '80s.

"The first songs were David's - this kind of poppy guitar rock with melodies and changes - but the rest of us ended up bringing our own things to the table," says Schreiner. "I find the best bands are ones that are made up of a diverse group of personalities, and everyone has their own goals for it."

It's remarkable, then, how clearly the personality of The Zags has been set. With the band readying the release of their debut full-length next year, it'll be interesting to see how the growth of the band changes what has developed into a crystal-clear vision. Even still, we have a document of a band on the rise - all breathless and rosy-eyed and full of impeccable songs. This is the type of music that'd open a teenager's eyes in the record shop.

THE ZAGS, w/ Full Moon Radio, the Falsies, 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 20, 4th Ave Tavern, 210 4th Ave E, Olympia, $5, 360.786.1444

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