It is a hefty box in every sense: 13 CDs, supplemented with two DVDs, accompanied by a gorgeous hardcover book and a variety of tchotchkes, including a poster that traces the twisted family trees and time lines of the band and, just as helpfully, replicas of legal documents that explain why the group didn't retain rights to its recordings for years. Such explicatory details are necessary because the Pretty Things do indeed have a long, convoluted story, a story that is told in its entirety on Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky, released to commemorate the band's 50th Anniversary. Every one of the band's studio albums is here, beginning with 1965's brutal eponymous debut and ending with 2007's surprisingly sturdy Balboa Island, all presented in good remasters dating from the late '90s and supplemented with bonus tracks that have been in circulation on previous reissues. The only major things missing are the complete sessions they recorded with French bon vivant Philippe DeBarge and the trippy film library music they recorded under the name the Electric Banana, although both are sampled on the two discs of rarities included as enticing collector bait.
These two CDs function as footnotes to the main text, offering a handful of raw and furious early cuts -- BBC sessions, rough mixes, and demos that underscore the Pretty Things' early savagery -- and then filling out the latter years with introspective demos, the odd stray song ("Spider Woman," a 1972 song that never made it to an album but probably should have; a new wave reggae piss-take called "Monster Club" from a mock horror film of the same name from 1980; "Cause and Effect," the lone studio song from 1988's live reunion Out of the Island), and some cuts from the '90s pre-reunion project the Pretty Things & the Yardbirds Blues Band. Much of this is interesting, at times even riveting, and helps bring to life the narrative told well in the hardcover book and DVD documentary, but there's a compelling arc told in the main discography this box set so lovingly preserves.
Like so many British rock bands of the '60s, the Pretty Things both anticipated and followed trends. They were at ground zero for the British blues explosion and wound up with trailblazing concept albums like 1968's S.F. Sorrow, but they usually seemed a year or two behind the times, arriving a hair too late to ride the zeitgeist. This is best seen with 1970's Parachute, a piece of lush psychedelia accomplished enough to earn legendary status, and named Album of the Year by Rolling Stone, but it sounded as if it belonged to a year or two earlier, which also could be said of the Baroque middlebrow pop of 1967's Emotions or the massive arena rock of 1976's Savage Eye. Such a flair for delayed fashion certainly hurt the Pretty Things commercially but looking at their career as a body of work, it's rich and restless, one that continually evolved. The acknowledged high points still shine brightly -- the debut is as nasty as rock & roll got in the '60s, while Get the Picture? adds some style to that swing; S.F. Sorrow is a gorgeous yet tense psychedelic masterwork but it may be trumped by the expansive Parachute -- but the revelations arise in the neglected corners of their discography. Emotions may have been heavily tweaked by the record label but it's an effective hybrid of the Kinks and Beatles; Freeway Madness has pastoral touches that belie its title; the two albums for Swan Song -- Silk Torpedo and Savage Eye -- feel assured in their road-conquering heaviosity; the New Wave reunion Cross Talk is shockingly sharp, and the latter day comeback records are no-nonsense affirmations of the deep rock & roll roots of Dick Taylor and Phil May. By the time of their last album in 2007, the Pretty Things had come nearly full circle and the great thing about Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky is that it vividly illustrates what a wild ride those 50 years were.