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Things are looking up for Natural Causes

The six members of Natural Causes, their manager Keith Schantz, and a two-man photo crew are parading down the long hallway of a Lincoln Road building, toward the back, where the musicians will pose for portraiture in their rehearsal studio. A glass door swings open and Washington Square music director Doc Wiley pokes his head out. He and Schantz step inside the Sync Studios office, and word in the hallway spreads: Phish has been tentatively scheduled for a January 17 show at the Square. The members of Natural Causes are immediately disappointed. They'll be performing at an AIDS benefit in Atlanta on January 16, and would really like to see the Phish concert.

Wiley wants even more -- he's willing to book the Causes as Phish's opening act, if the show becomes confirmed. As he and Schantz talk inside, the frowns outside turn to some hard figuring. "If we drove back right after..." and "It's about twelve hours..." and "We might be able to..." and a few moments later it's decided that Natural Causes will open the planned Phish show after all.

Natural Causes stand as one of the more organized and efficiently run local bands, but their knack for stumbling into opportunity is almost as consistent as their ability to churn out solid-as-an-oak-coffin rock songs.

Singer/songwriter/pianist Arlan Feiles left his native Los Angeles about four years ago to attend the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Feiles was put off by the instruction, being told from the get-go that his singing sounded good, but it wasn't correct. He says he never went to class after that. Guitarist Joel Schantz (manager Keith's cousin, and formerly with the Miami band Four Peace) was also at Berklee, and he says he attended class religiously. Somehow both walked away with A's.

Feiles and Schantz formed a band -- named the E-Z Walkers, the moniker a target of much ridicule -- and played the area clubs before Schantz came home to Miami. In Boston he had been standing in line at Tower Records for tickets to a Prince concert when a car smashed into the crowd. Schantz was hospitalized for six weeks in Boston, and laid up here for another five months. He returned to Boston, came back, and later enticed his colleague Feiles to head south by promising "lots of gigs," as the guitarist puts it. "The band in Boston wanted to stay there," Feiles explains. "They talked about moving, but when the time came, they got cold feet." Once here, the duo recruited three members of Ragamuffin Soldier, and for the past year Feiles, Schantz, second guitarist Sean Edelson, bassist Matt Coogan, singer/keyboardist Karen Friedman (ex-Blue Trixie), and drummer Jim Wall have solidified into one of Miami's top groups.

That solidification is about to shoot to the moon courtesy of the Causes' debut album, Bomb in the Shelter, to be released this week. Calling this record accomplished is like saying Barry Bonds is overpaid. Calling it compelling is equally understated. And calling it Southern rock is just plain wrong. Nonetheless, Joel Schantz notes, "We'll pull out our four hottest tunes, and someone still yells for `Freebird.' It even happened at a college show, at FIU North."

The mistake is easy to make. There is a certain Allman Brothers feel to some of the songs, though there's just as much Grateful Dead, just as much the Band, just as much room for lots of other handy comparisons. There's also the dual guitar lineup. And the less-known fact that revered producer Tom Dowd, who's worked with the Allmans plenty, is a fan of Natural Causes. (Although, Feiles says, "I don't care about that, I admire him because he worked with Coltrane.") While recording Bomb in the Shelter at Criteria, Dowd stopped by to inform the band that their guitars were out of tune. As Edelson and Schantz both readily admit, to have someone of Dowd's stature even bother to correct you is flattering.

At least part of Bomb's explosive grace is attributable to the contributions of Andrew Roshberg, who coproduced with Joel Schantz and engineered. Roshberg, senior boardman at Criteria with four years there, has recently knobbed artists such as R.E.M., the Allmans, and Miami Sound Machine. "I don't think it's fair to call it Southern rock," he offers. "The dual-harmony guitars are reminiscent of the Allmans, but what they're singing about is not Southern. It's more in a popular vein, but who to compare them to that's contemporary? I don't know. There's a Zeppelin aspect, the Dead, of course, and the Dead is not exactly Southern-fried. What's on this tape shows what they're capable of -- it represents them as a band."

Actually it does even more, it gets inside you like a great novel or a deep crush, insinuates itself until you can hear it even when it's not playing. When the band asks for an opinion and is told that the record is "good," more than one member quickly responds, "You should hear the new stuff!" So much for laurels.

Natural Causes have enough original material to play four solid sets without repeating themselves, but certainly this album, these ten songs, will prove to be a calling card, if not their big break. Miami boasts enough hard-core music fans to appreciate, say, the title track, even if the majors and radio might find it too long, too involved. Though recorded live in the studio, the cut is this band's equivalent to Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland." Jim Wall backbones it with a militaristic drum pattern that falls off, then repeats when necessary -- during one long bridge he adds an old-fashioned solo, a la John Bonham, that fades away just before Feiles's vocals, backed by the church-sweet croons of Karen Friedman, return for a penetrating delivery of this lyric: "Pledge allegiance to no flag/That can't put an end to this/All the power for which it stands/Can't contain a state of bliss." The guitars of Schantz and Edelson slither and scream and blend like coffee and cream throughout, Matt Coogan's bass smooth as Chivas, Feiles's piano riffs intoxicating. This singular composition is not so much a song as it is a place to be.

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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