Ex-Pain Teen Bliss Blood Finds Her Voice in Noir Jazz

Bliss Blood and Al Street bring despairing characters to life on their recent album 'Unspun.'
Bliss Blood and Al Street bring despairing characters to life on their recent album 'Unspun.'
Photo courtesy of Bliss Blood

One of Houston’s greatest musical eras reached its glorious summit in 1992. I remember seeing the Mike Gunn Theory attempt to induce epileptic seizures with a strobe light flickering at near immeasurable speeds an array of colors I once found appealing. Spunk pulled few punches, mixing humor and derision into their brand of punk rock at a time when little humor was found in it. Pik n’ Pak introduced me to Rusted Shut, where there was nothing like seeing little kids roller skating with half-eaten sandwiches in their hands while Don Walsh was screaming his suicide poems into the microphone.

The seminal event of my early twenties was getting to see Cop Shoot Cop perform. But prior to their taking the stage, Pain Teens kept the audience fixed on Bliss Blood, who led someone around in a leather bondage suit and studded dog collar with a chain as a leash as she wailed into the microphone. Although the Pain Teens felt Houston bore little influence on their music, they made jaw-dropping tunes with a stage show to match. Their industrial blues is now the stuff of legends.

Recently, my all-too patient editor asked if I could contact Bliss Blood to see what has transpired for her artistically since the end of her time with Pain Teens. Despite some people's assumptions about Houston artists during that time, some have continued with a career in music. More importantly, in Bliss Blood’s case, her artistic evolution took a turn towards a genre somewhat out of sync with her once-noteworthy band: jazz.

Since moving to New York City, Blood has been hard at work establishing herself in that city's highly competitive jazz and blues scene. After fronting numerous projects, her most recent, Bliss Blood and Al Street, pairs her with an incredible musician who has played with jazz greats including the sublime organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and onetime Amy Winehouse guitarist Ian Hendrickson-Smith.

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How does a front person like Blood go from creating legendary noise to noir-ish hymns to sinners?

“[Street and I] had a mutual friend,” Blood remarks. “He was just out of Manhattan School of Music around 2003 when we were introduced and he played a couple of gigs with me. Then I literally didn't see him except once at a wedding when the Moonlighters played the cocktail hour and the band he was in at the time, Sugarman Three & Co., played the reception.

"We ran into each other on the stairs as I was leaving and he was arriving," Blood continues. "I wish I had stayed to see them, but we just said 'Hi' to each other. Then he showed up at a Moonlighters gig in 2010, and I think he admired my ukulele playing and singing and wanted to work on music together. That really helped me break out of the 'trad ghetto' (Traditional Ghetto Jazz) as I call it, and get back into working in different genres of music.”

Since their fortuitous reunion, Blood and Street embarked on many recordings, yet their current project has yielded some fantastically strange fruit. The distinct fusion of blues riffs played through a ukulele coupled with swing music’s standard arrangements, creates an eerie aura of melancholy and regret. The stand-out track, “Reluctant Sinners,” maintains some of the themes found in some Pain Teens’ songs with a more introspective twist.

“I guess what I'm interested in is the traditional place of lyrics to portray heartbreak and joy in a way that's beautiful and poetic at the same time," Blood explains. "I'm also interested in strength and the way that people hide their emotions but don't seem to feel afraid of expressing their feeling through a song, letting someone else's words express one's feelings because of the universality of it."

“The Pain Teens was a little more detached lyrically, telling stories about broken people that were not necessarily any experience of my own," adds the singer. "My current interest is in using hard-boiled vernacular in song lyrics. I love noir films from the 1940s and '50s and classic literature from that period, and the characters back then had such verbal style and swagger.”

The distinctly noir tracks found on the duo’s album Unspun factor in a confidence where Blood’s voice brings each despairing character to life, filling with the soul that they yearn for. The classical guitar lines interweaves with Street’s passion for jazz’s warm tones rooted deeply in the blues. “Alpha” features a memorable soundtrack for a character at the end her tether. Both complement each other almost effortlessly, far from the strain on Blood competing with the fortress of noise erected by her previous band.

“Vocally, I am not a screamer and didn't have fun yelling over the guitar amps onstage, trying to hear myself in the monitors,” she asserts.

Touring with exceptionally loud and heavy bands like The Boredoms and Fudge Tunnel brought Blood to the realization that both the lifestyle found in rock music coupled with tiresome touring needed to end. Without reluctance, she returned to her roots found in the blues of Janis Joplin. The days of fighting against instruments whose only purpose was to create an atmosphere of dismay were over.

“When I was a senior in high school I got into Janis Joplin and read a biography which stated that a few months before her death, she contributed to buy a tombstone for Bessie Smith, who had been killed over 30 years prior in an auto accident," Blood recounts. "That led to me listen to Bessie and other blues singers, and I always loved to sing along with the music and learn the words to the songs."

An encounter with Henry Bogdan, formerly of Helmet, continued to foster her transition into jazz.

“I really love to sing and as fun as the Pain Teens was, it really did not allow my vocals to be heard at their best, so I learned ukulele and started singing as a soloist when I moved to New York in December 1995," says Blood. "I played Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Annette Hanshaw, and other '20s and '30s music. That led to forming jazz group The Moonlighters with Henry Bogdan from Helmet, who was into playing the Hawaiian steel guitar, and then later to playing with guitarist Al Street and many other jazz musicians. On the first Moonlighters album, Dreamland, we covered "All My Life," a song Ella made famous in the 1930s when she was singing with Chick Webb's orchestra.”

When asked about her fondness of Houston, both the pleasant and the more obvious unpleasantness, came to mind.

“I miss working at the Sound Exchange record store, all of my great Houston friends, and especially the great food in Houston,” Blood recalls. “Houston restaurants are really excellent. Here in New York, there are great restaurants too, but they don't really care if people ever come back again. I always felt like Houston restaurants made sure you'd come back again, and people did.

“I don't miss the freeways, the traffic, etc.,” Blood painfully reminds us. “That was the main reason I wanted to live somewhere else.”

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