Rock & Pop: Hip-hopped on classics

Melky Sedeck Subterania, London Rufus Wainwright Embassy, London
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The Independent Culture
Melky Sedeck has to be one of the worst names ever for a pop duo, mainly because it doesn't sound like the name of a duo at all: everyone I've mentioned it to has responded, "Who's he?" Another failure of the sobriquet is that it conceals the highly marketable information that Blandinna "Melky" Jean and Farel "Sedeck" Jean are the younger sister and brother of Wyclef Jean, empire-building leader of the Fugees (which makes another Fugee, Pras Michel, their cousin). Music is in the Jeans' genes.

Melky Sedeck's sexy debut album, Sister & Brother, is more than worthy of the Fugee camp. It applies hip-hop beats and attitudes to the organic arrangements and gutsy, melodic vocals of Sixties soul and Seventies funk. And Melky Sedeck (it's getting irritating already, isn't it?) boast a few tricks of their own, most notably their taste for classical music. Sister & Brother is built on symphonic samples, Melky's operatic vocals and the piano cadenzas of Sedeck, who plays almost all the instruments on the album. Any sensible A&R man should already have signed up any stray Jean siblings or, failing that, household pets.

It's ironic that the Jeans are now black American music's first family, for Melky Sedeck's parents wouldn't let them listen to any music that wasn't religious. Blandinna, Farel and Wyclef are the daughter and sons of a preacher man, and a puritanically strict one at that. He and his wife have yet to hear any of their children's records or to watch any of their shows.

It's probably for the best. I doubt the reverend Jean would applaud the insouciant way Melky flings off her silver raincoat and unzips her leather waistcoat to reveal a nautically-themed Lycra catsuit which Wonder Woman would have rejected as being rather garish. Melky's next outfit consists of hot-pants, boots and a leather jacket. And that's all within the first 25 minutes of the show.

I don't suppose the elder Jeans would consider it much consolation, but the influence of the Church on Melky Sedeck is still apparent. Their namesake, Melchizedeck, was an Old Testament prophet, and Melky, like any gospel singer worth her pillar of salt, is dramatic, impassioned and a few miles over the top. It's just that instead of being possessed by the spirit of the Lord, she's possessed by ... well, whatever it is, it makes her shake her scarier-than-Scary-Spice mane, jog on the spot, toss roses to the audience and swing her hips with such vigour that she's lucky her buttocks don't fly off. As her voice leaps from a low, soulful growl to a piercing vibrato, you're tempted to have another peek at the family tree to check if Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner or Shirley Bassey are in there somewhere.

Compared to Melky, her big brother is the shy, retiring type. Compared to anyone else, he isn't. While the duo's DJ, J Scratch, provides the rhythms, Sedeck, in an enormous red bodywarmer that could be the Michelin man's life-jacket, is on his knees playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" or a flurry of flamenco guitar.

Melky Sedeck bundle everything they have in the mix, which puts their gig ahead of almost every other hip-hop-associated show. The approach isn't always to the benefit of their music, though. Between J Scratch's fussy beats, Sedeck's insistent piano flourishes and Melky's gale-force vocals, the relentless showing off made me feel as if I were gawping at a juggling display rather than appreciating a concert. They should use their talents more sparingly. They can afford to, when they have so much talent to spare.

Rufus Wainwright is from a musical dynasty, too, but he has more parental approval. His dad helped him get a record contract, and his mum played the piano for him on one song on Tuesday. She is the folk singer Kate McGarrigle. Her ex-husband, Rufus's dad, is Loudon Wainwright III. And the couple's daughter, Martha, is in the family firm, too - she sings backing vocals on her brother's album.

This pop pedigree is not all the 25-year-old has in common with Melky Sedeck. Like theirs, his work is informed by his classical training and his love of opera and other musical theatre. Last year's debut album, Rufus Wainwright, is a collection of piano-based songs - tear-stained torch ballads and rambunctious vaudeville romps - which are influenced more by Randy Newman, Irving Berlin and Verdi than by any of Wainwright's peers (or his parents). If he sounds like any of his contemporaries, it is Radiohead's Thom Yorke: his voice can be bleak, bleary and world-weary while soaring like an angel's.

Wainwright's name will be one to watch for decades to come, although I shouldn't recommend watching him too closely at the moment. There were many beautiful notes on Tuesday, but not many beautiful sequences of notes. Without the album's jaunty band and Van Dyke Parks's shimmering string arrangements, most of the songs were suicidally ponderous dirges. Even Wainwright himself, who was as camp and twinkly as a glitterball between songs, was drained of pizzazz the instant he touched the grand piano, or worse, picked up his acoustic guitar. This was the last date of a year- long tour. It sounded as if it had ground, very slowly, to a halt.