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Things are looking up for Natural Causes

While other songs on the album are not as vast and consuming, the literateness and passion are constants. In the counter-punching, Zevonesque slow ride "Ivory Mountain," Feiles loads up a lyric that uses a switchback to speak volumes: "Roamed around Ivory Mountain/Met a woman with a golden touch/Bought a town on Ivory Mountain/Made a fortune and spent it on lunch." And just about every time the frontman drops a profundity, the bass growls, the guitars holler, the drums snap, the piano sneaks in, Friedman's backing vocals shadow Feiles's remarkably poised, but moving, phrasings. He might not sing correct, but damn is he good.

And the John Coltrane connection is clear. Coltrane, who died at age 41, wrote wordless songs of such haunting emotional intensity it's unfair even to call his work "jazz." His music induced the serious listener to grow with virtually every note, even as the texture and depth made single moments meaningless. A similar sort of cohesiveness and complexity binds the sound of Natural Causes.

After the photo shoot everybody heads outside to see how the lunar eclipse is going. When we all agree it's disappointing, everyone heads over to Jim Wall's nearby apartment (except Matt Coogan, who has tickets for a hockey game at the Miami Arena). Wall has a habit of holding doors for people, and soon it becomes clear the man was born to be a host. I ride over with Arlan Feiles in his 1961 Karman Ghia convertible, and under the moon's dance he opens up about his way with songwriting. "If you've got nothing to say," he blurts at one point, "then shut up. I'm not trying to sound like a know-it-all, and if anyone's offended by what I say, good. I'm happy to provoke any kind of thought. A song is about learning something. If you don't have something to say [lyrically], play your instruments. Play what you're thinking."

When we walk into Wall's apartment, a Beatles tune is on the stereo. The talk ranges from a heated discussion of Springsteen's recent live show (L.A. native Feiles is the only one who agrees with my view that one guitarist had too much El Lay attitude, all hair and no soul) to the merits of bedding Cindy Crawford (Joel Schantz can't get over some white bathing suit the star model was photographed wearing) to gimmickry (whether Edelson should shave his head so the band would have two bald guitarists, a ZZ Top kind of thing, and purely a joke in this case).

By the time this get-together ends, the music pouring out of Wall's stereo is that of John Coltrane. I hitch another ride with Feiles, still uncertain I truly understand this band and where it's going. The lunar eclipse has ended, the moon is full and glowing brightly, and even in a convertible it's impossible not to feel sheltered, safe with sound. Then Feiles drops a bomb. "God, I want to get out of this town," he says. "It has such a vacation mentality. Everyone acts like they're always on vacation." Not surprising for a guy who wrote a song called "Working Man's Lament," but Feiles says it with a fury that's almost frightening.

The band had already discussed parochialism at length -- the old saw about whether Miami is legitimately a viable launching pad. The bigger the "scene" gets, the more it provides a suckling-pup mentality to musicians who mistake the cozy security for success and achievement. While admitting that even a good outfit can't really make a decent living playing in this area, the members of Natural Causes seem willing to take opportunity as they find it, stumbling or not. Keith Schantz is entering tapes in various showcase competitions, a Southeast tour begins soon, and the members' roots here are planted firmly.

But because all the Causes came from other bands, it's difficult not to worry about their future. As Karen Friedman said earlier in the evening, "It's easier to learn an instrument than it is to learn how to be in a band." On the other hand, all of them agree that they're friends as well as colleagues, and their track record supports that.

Rolling through South Beach in the Karman Ghia, I hear in my head the Causes' song "I Will Go Home." It lends credence to Feiles's claim that he could bolt at the drop of a passing train: "And tell me please where of the moon/It's faded way too soon/The thrill is gone/So I will go home."

Manager Keith Schantz has a pitch that goes, "We're going to change the meaning of `natural causes' from death to birth." It's only slightly reassuring. Still, now that the Causes have climbed closer to the stars, there is something valuable to lose, something to fret about, something that can disappear in a flash. There's only one place to turn after Feiles drops me off on Lincoln Road. I plug in a proof copy of the new album and fast-forward to the very end, to a song called "Release Me." It is a moment of haunting emotional intensity. Against a lonesome piano-only backdrop, Feiles gut-sings, "In my contemplation/I found I had grown/And used this invention/To make this my home/And if I should cry/These tears I have shown/Let it be known/I'm finally home."

NATURAL CAUSES performs at an album-release party tomorrow (Thursday) at 9:00 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission is free.

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