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Happy hardcore

Plays Pretty for Baby defines its own sound
Sunday, February 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:34 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Alex Kelley swings his microphone by the cord like a referee’s whistle, then karate kicks the air and pumps his fist. The bass drum kicks, and barely tuned guitars wail. Distorted amplifiers throw sound into every corner. Cymbals crash, and a deep bass guitar rhythm drives Kelley’s intensity to another level. He’s inside his head, no longer in the room. Maybe he’s on the stage of a sold-out amphitheater, and through a glowing ocean of cigarette lighters he can see the screaming faces of imaginary fans, pining for an encore.

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Alex Kelley, second from right, belts out lyrics during the band’s Friday night basement show at Kelley’s former home. About 30 teenage friends, including one of Kelley’s best friends, A.J. Simpson, 15, center, and classmates crammed in a crowded basement to hear the band play original songs. After the brief mosh pits, crowd surfing and headbanging, the crowd dispersed to the International House of Pancakes in Columbia on Feb. 2.

“It’s just the rush,” said 14-year-old Kelley one night after band practice. They had to cut it short; only an hour and a half. After all, the girlfriends have 10:30 p.m. curfews.

“You guys always practice for, like, five hours,” said Delora Crane, Kelley’s 16-year-old girlfriend.

The band is Plays Pretty For Baby. The genre is a little harder to nail down. What do you call a mix of lofty lyrics, callow screams and jagged guitar bits that stab your ears and inject you with energy? The group consults for two minutes, trying to define themselves, tossing out more groups, sub-groups and classifications than you’d find in a biology textbook. Finally it’s settled. “Happy Hardcore/Post Hardcore,” the group says uncertainly.

“That’s a long name that makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about,” Jordan Parks, the band’s lanky drummer says.

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Members of Plays Pretty for Baby assemble for a portrait inside Alex Kelley’s room while Alex’s father, Steve Kelley, looks on. Clockwise from left back, drummer Jordan Parks, lead guitarist Zak Hosmer-Dillard, bassist P.J. Palmer, singer guitarist Alex Kelley, and singer guitarist Seth Dearmas.

But when the music starts the uncertainty is gone. Seth Dearmas bends and twists with each untidy swipe of his guitar strings. PJ Palmer steadies his bass guitar against his belly, anchoring the band and the music. Under a mop of brown hair that rarely reveals his eyes, Zak Hosmer-Dillard — HD for short — leans his head into the guitar neck and spurts out the next lead guitar lick. Jordan Parks’ twiggy knees bounce high as his feet rebound off the bass drum pedals, his arms flopping with a quick rhythm over the high-hat cymbal and snare drum.

Tangled cords lie in spaghetti piles in the corner of the band’s practice room. A single fluorescent bulb reflects off a low ceiling casting green light on a floor filled with unrecognizable bits of trash from concerts past. At the center of the room, under the hood of a faded sweatshirt and layers of choppy jet-black hair, Kelley’s face contorts and neck muscles tighten to help him deliver the next lyrics on key.

“Practicing is fun and all, but playing out is the funnest,” said Kelley.

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Alex Kelley’s girlfriend, Delora Crane, 16, and P.J. Palmer’s girlfriend, Jennie Yonly, 18, giggle as guitarist and singer Seth Dearmas talks on his cell phone in Alex Kelley’s bedroom on Jan. 30. “You guys always practice for, like, five hours,” Crane said.

At Plays Pretty for Baby’s Friday night basement concert, about 30 friends and classmates mixed together in sweaty mosh pits during the hourlong song set. Despite the uncharacteristically small turnout, the band fed off the crowd.

“The coolest feeling is crowd surfing in a two-foot (tall) basement,” Kelley said, exaggerating the lowness of the ceiling. “That’s probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

“You’ve played one show in a little basement, and the next show, people are singing your songs word-for-word,” Parks said. “That’s kinda crazy.”


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