It was inevitable that Damien Dempsey would one day trawl through the long list of traditional folk songs to make an album which would set tills ringing at Fáilte Éireann, Carroll's gift store and Dublin Airport's Duty-Free shopping mall, as well as ex-pat stores from Brooklyn to Battersea.

That it has come so soon in his career is less surprising when one considers Sony-BMG's evident desire to make hay while the sun shines. Dempsey is enjoying immense popularity here, across all age groups, and his label has jumped on this, releasing the man from Donaghmede's fifth album in as many years. That's without counting the hastily packaged 'expanded edition' of his previous album 'To Hell or Barbados'.

With this in mind it would be easy to be cynical about this quickly put-together package of traditional cover versions. When any artist embarks on such an exercise, commercial considerations normally outweigh the creative. Dempsey, however, has always been that bit different.

Old head on young shoulders, the Dubliner has always rallied against certain young interests - dance music, pop music and drugs - and attempted to get them interested in the nation's history as well as its music.

That seems a central impetus to 'The Rocky Road' as he's endeavoured to pull together a fine collection of ballads, some well-known ('The Rocky Road to Dublin', 'The Foggy Dew') and others less-so ('Schooldays Over', 'Hot Asphalt'), while enrolling Dubliners John Sheahan and Barney McKenna to ensure the musicianship demonstrates familiarity and love for the songs selected.

Dempsey, it goes without saying, adores the material and was born to sing these songs. The passion in his voice serves the lyrical content particularly well, most notably on an epic version of 'The Foggy Dew'.

A slightly faster version of 'The Hackler from Grouse Hall' nods to Christy Moore, while Dempsey again nods to another hero in Shane MacGowan. Here, he delivers a poignant version of 'A Rainy Night in Soho', which he keeps relatively low-key so as to sit with the album's back-room bar feel.

Nicely packaged with some interesting sleeve notes from Dempsey, as well as a full lyric sheet, 'The Rocky Road' is a better record than we might have expected. The quality of playing is of a high-standard and Dempsey's voice has come on immensely since his somewhat forced style of five years ago.

Fans of Dempsey will lap up 'The Rocky Road', and no doubt learn something of their hero's musical past. Those meanwhile looking for an introduction to the Irish traditional repertoire could do worse. Not as essential as some of his own work, but a fine exercise nonetheless.

Steve Cummins