One problem with a long wait is that things happen in the interim. In the case of the highly anticipated Kinks box set, these things were a steady stream of reissues and repackages -- some of these were pulled from the shelves before the unveiling of the six-disc Picture Book in late 2008, but at that late date almost all of the Kinks vaults had been emptied on deluxe reissues of every album from 1964's The Kinks until 1984's Word of Mouth (capped off by a triple-disc version of Village Green Preservation Society), with various other compilations like Live at the BBC and Dave Davies' Unfinished Business filling out the gaps. All this means that Picture Book isn't quite the clearinghouse for rarities it once would have been -- and many of the unreleased tracks here are often alternate takes or mono mixes, although there are some quite interesting demos here -- but the main purpose of Picture Book, as it would be with any box set this size for an artist with a career as significant and lengthy as the Kinks, is to tell the story as thoroughly as possible and on that level, it's very successful, even observant. As always, it's possible to quibble over song exclusions, this time with some justification -- since they had a surplus of great songs in the '60s many are left behind, singles from "Plastic Man" to "Jukebox Music" are overlooked, and another opportunity to reissue the studio version of "When I Turn Off the Living Room Light" is missed -- but to dwell on what's missing is to ignore what's here: 138 tracks that tell the tale of one of Britain's greatest bands -- and one of their strangest -- in detail.
This detail does mean each act of the story gets almost equal treatment, with the band's heyday of 1966-1970 deservedly receiving a slight emphasis, with precisely a third of this set devoted to these glory years. Even this cold statistic suggests that the box leans heavily on Face to Face through Lola, which isn't quite right: it lingers on the prime but not at the expense of either the group's early or later years or even their early-'70s detour into odd theatrics. Picture Book takes a little while to get going, cycling through some standard-issue British beat before the band starts to hit its groove after cutting "You Really Got Me," which non-chronologically opens the set like a fanfare. Similarly, it also has a bit of a long close, as the Davies brothers drag into the mid-'90s with Phobia and To the Bone, but between this slow start and finish lies one of the greatest pop sagas in all its glory and occasional bewildering embarrassment. Fortunately, there's not much of the latter, as the set cherry-picks Ray Davies' convoluted concept albums well and gets the best of the uneven '80s LPs (although the choice to include the smash comeback "Come Dancing" as only a demo is a bit puzzling), making this a full-bodied, representative portrait of a band that's notoriously difficult to pigeonhole.
Inevitably, some partisans will grouse that there's too much latter-day stuff at the expense of that classic '60s run, but that's not quite right: Picture Book does a remarkable job of getting into the flow of their career, so the transition from the delicate Village Green to the America-conquering arena rockers of a decade later makes sense. The group had to go through the loose-limbed, ragged Muswell Hillbillies before settling into the concept albums where every gesture became grander -- all theatrics amped up for the time when the amps themselves ruled the roost. As this covers the Kinks itself, not Ray Davies, this stops during his fallow period in the '90s -- ever the misfit, he managed not to capitalize on the Brit-pop moment he godfathered -- so there's not quite an upward swing at the conclusion as there would be if his solo albums were taken into equation. Even so, Picture Book has a wealth of riches, proof that the Kinks are in the first ranks of rockers, right up there with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. What other band could invent hard rock and metal with a two-chord riff, then detour into wry social satire, then establish modern British pop with Something Else, retreat into nostalgia before inventing the rock opera before the Who, then sell America tongue-in-cheek hard rock about gas shortages and the falling dollar, then feel totally at ease on MTV...all the while having a second command as exuberant and open as Dave Davies, who does get his fair shake here. No other band could claim that because there is no other band like the Kinks, as this long-awaited, largely essential, always absorbing box set proves conclusively.