In his years toiling in the underground, Spencer Radcliffe spent time on a number of projects that can be described as dark, gloomy, spacey, emotive and strange. His 2015 solo debut, Looking In, was an experiment in semi-sweet indie-folk songwriting doused in wave upon wave of transgressive, off-rhythm noise, like a (somehow) moodier and weirder Neutral Milk Hotel. Now that sound persists on its follow-up, but with a key difference: For the most part, Enjoy the Great Outdoors sounds genuinely happy.
Granted, it's still an understated sort of joviality that often reminds one of Pavement, thanks to the hushed, Stephen Malkmus-esque singing, plucky, phaser-laden guitars and dry production. Recording for the first time with Radcliffe's live band — referred to as "Everyone Else," a temporary name that seems to have stuck — the album is not unlike his previous work, which has drawn comparisons to '90s-born bands like Built to Spill, the Microphones and Modest Mouse. It's laden with improvisations and imperfections that make it an honest and endearing listen, far removed from the yawning ambient tracts and achromatic indie oddities of his earlier work. But the mood has changed, and for once, he has a noticeable spring in his step.
Radcliffe hasn't completely shed his signature dreariness; early singles "Wrong Turn" and "Smoker's Paradise," for example, would each suit a grey, rainy day just right. But just as he chases the glimmers of hope and opportunity in his lyrics, the songs let in rays of light where there were none before. "Trust" hums along like a leisurely stroll in the spring, while "In the Clear" is a bouncy tune with a glistening string section. All the while, Radcliffe spikes his most sanguine melodies with a shot of dissonance, serving up a sweet-and-sour concoction that's comforting, but doesn't let you get too comfortable.
If Looking In was about locking oneself in a room with the curtains drawn and the lights out for an extended bout of quiet self-discovery, Enjoy the Great Outdoors is about taking those first few tentative steps outside to go looking for everything that's out there. In terms of artistic growth and exploration, that's a pretty encouraging path to be on. (Run For Cover)