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Based on a True Story - Click to view!People face adversity on a daily basis around this world of ours. While the circumstances may vary, this adversity often involves a struggle for survival. In some cases, the problem is finding enough to eat. In others, shelter from the elements. Sometimes it's just hoping that the day won't end with a mother's heart-broken cries for help, as her child lies dying from a stray bullet. Indeed, life for some is a constant challenge. From such bleak circumstances, the success stories that arise from such situations shine that much more brightly. One such story is the revival of Sandtown.

Once a thriving community, this Baltimore, MD, neighborhood was, by 1986, in serious decline. That is, until the residents decided to do something about the abandoned buildings and air of despair. Out of their efforts arose a novel program to help the youth of the community. Children aged 8 to 14 were encouraged to meet and sing, channeling their energies into something positive. This unique, community-driven artistic endeavor has opened numerous opportunities for those children, and the group hopes to repay their friends and neighbors through proceeds from sales of Based On a True Story, their debut release on Gotee Records.

It's a worthwhile project, and the kids obviously put forth a great deal of effort on the album. Under the direction of Alvin Richardson, who also wrote many of the songs, the group puts on a display of harmony and vocal talent that is not entirely expected from a youth group. Honestly, something akin to Kidz Bop would not have surprised me. While that would not be an unfair comparison, there are also elements of real talent as well. Primarily a chorale group, there are several solos on the project, and all of the soloists do themselves proud. Of particular delight is the song "Destiny," with singing solos by the choir director and Jasmine Macklin, and a solo rap by a very young- sounding Sharandall "Shoodie" Moses, who brings to mind the 80's group, Another Bad Creation.

Driven almost exclusively by synthesized music, the songs of the album are written with the perspective firmly in mind of disadvantaged persons finding hope, peace, and strength in God's grace. However, while these are noble thoughts and fit naturally with the purpose and scope of the project, having these lyrics sung by pre-adolescents detracts somewhat from their impact.

Joining the kids is an All-Star lineup of Gotee artists, including tobyMac (technically, Forefront Records), Lisa Kimmey (Out of Eden), and The Katinas, to name a few. Here's where the project sort of loses direction, at least musically. There are twelve songs on this album (excluding an intro), and there are seven guest appearances among them. Ostensibly, those appearances are in support of Sandtown. Unfortunately, guest stars for unproven artists tend to take up a lot of the spotlight, and this CD is no exception. The kids are relegated to backup duties on most of the tracks featuring stablished groups. Such is the case on a cover of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)," featuring Michael W. Smith (who does an admirable job of mimicking Bono). And because there are so many guests on the album, the "backup" phenomenon takes quite a toll on the artistic credibility of the purported "stars" of this project. It's especially disappointing that the kids aren't spotlighted more frequently, because the songs they perform sans established stars have plenty of artistic merit on their own. The group's rendition, for example, of "America the Beautiful," has the flavor of the Ray Charles version, though slightly modernized, and it reflects well on the group's preparation and talent.

All in all, this CD is an admirable endeavor and useful marketing tool. The lives of these children have been enriched, no doubt, through both being in the group and producing this album. Unfortunately, the good intentions and marketing "genius" of Gotee Records and its artists hijack this project, turning it into something based less on a "True Story" and more on sales potential. Here's hoping that the next time they want to "do something for the kids," they try letting the kids do something for themselves.
- Scott Bush
February 2004
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